Sunday, January 26, 2014

Quick Thought on Internet Governance and Edward Snowden

I am neither an Internet governance expert nor am I personally consumed by the issue. However, I wanted to point out a possible rhetorical inconsistency involving the Internet governance debate and another hot topic, theft of secret documents by insiders, namely Edward Snowden.

Let me set the stage. First, Internet governance.

Too often the Internet governance debate is reduced to the following. One side is characterized as "multi-stakeholder," consisting of various nongovernmental parties with overlapping agendas, like ICANN, IANA, IETF, etc. This side is often referred to as "the West" (thanks to the US, Canada, Europe, etc. being on this side), and is considered a proponent of an "open" Internet. The other side aligns with state governments and made its presence felt at the monumental December 2012 ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) meeting. This side is often referred to as "the East" (thanks to Russia, China, the Middle East, etc.), and is considered a proponent of a "closed" or "controlled" Internet.

Continuing to set the stage, let me now mention theft of secret documents.

One of the critiques of Edward Snowden involves the following. He stole documents on his own accord, claiming he had the right to do so by the "egregious" nature of what he found (or was sent to find). Critics reply that "no one elected Edward Snowden," but that the programs he exposed were authorized by all three branches of the US government. Because that government is elected by the people, one could say the government is speaking on behalf of the people, while Snowden is acting only on his behalf.

Here's the problem.

If you believe that elected governments are the proper forum for expressing the wishes of their people, you should have a difficult time defending a "multi-stakeholder" model that puts groups like ICANN, IANA, IETF, etc. on equal footing (or even above) representatives of elected governments. If you believe in the primacy of the democratic system, you should also believe forums of elected representatives are the proper place to debate and decide Internet governance.

That chain of logic means Western democracies who support representative government should view government-centric bodies like the ITU in more favorable light than they do presently. After all, who created the UN? Where is the organizations headquarters? Who pays its bills?

You probably detect the "escape hatch" for the multi-stakeholder proponents: my use of the term "elected governments." If a regime was not properly elected by its people, it should not have the right to speak for them. This applies to governments such as those in the People's Republic of China. Depending on your view of the legitimacy of the Russian election process, it may or may not apply to Russia. You can extend the argument as necessary to other countries.

The bottom line is this: be careful promoting multi-stakeholder Internet governance at the expense of representation by elected governments, if you also feel that Edward Snowden has no right to contravene the decision of a properly elected American government.

PS: If you want to know more about WCIT, try reading Summary Report of the ITU-T World Conference on International Telecommunications by Robert Pepper and Chip Sharp.

No comments: