The internet is freest in US hands

Internationalising internet governance will abridge liberty and restrict free speech

Edward Snowden’s revelations have strengthened demands for “extricating the internet from US control.” This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jon Postel died in 1998, governments and non-government organisations have been engaged in a long, complex and meandering process of somehow taking control over the internet. However, while outfits like ICANN and assorted United Nations forums have gotten into the act of “internet governance”, much of the internet remains in US hands. China might well be the country that has more internet users, but it has locked its citizens behind the Great Firewall and effectively created its own national intranet.

Mr Snowden’s revelations are grave, but shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with national security issues or the communications infrastructure business. So while a lot of international reaction is properly in the Captain Renault (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”) category, there are some attempts by governments to secure greater control over internet. China, Russia and Brazil are expected to raise the pitch in the coming months.

It would be terrible thing if they succeed. Whatever the imperfections, whatever the US government’s transgressions, we are better off with as much of the internet coming under the US Constitution than the UN Charter.

Why so? Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech. Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden? Where is China’s Snowden? Where is Brazil’s Snowden? The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm. It has a judicial system that is sufficiently independent as to overrule the executive if found violating the US constitution. Despite what cynics in the United States and detractors around the world say, the US system works. To the extent that it does, it protects everyone’s liberties (albeit to a lesser degree than it protects the liberties of US citizens).

For those who contend that this isn’t good enough, consider the alternative. The vast United Nations system that is accountable to exactly no one. The General Assembly has almost two hundred nation-states as members with varying degrees of commitment to upholding liberty. The Security Council reflects the balance of interests its permanent members, where such paragons of free speech as Russia and China have a veto. Let’s say that the UN creates a brand new UN Internet Governance Council to sit at the helm of internet governance. What is to prevent it from going the way of the UN Human Rights Council, where you don’t need any commitment to human rights to be a member, and where you can rule that free speech shouldn’t defame religion.

Now, those who argue that national governments must control the internet because they must exercise their sovereignty over their ‘territory’ of cyberspace have a logical argument when they call for the internationalisation of internet governance. However, it is unfathomable why proponents of free speech and liberty would want the world’s authoritarian regimes to have a say on how the internet is governed.

Calls for “extricating the internet from US control” are effectively facades for authoritarian states to further abridge the liberties of the world’s citizens. That is why they must be resisted. Indians are much better off putting their faith in their freedom-loving American counterparts than participating in grandiose international internet governance schemes.

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17 Responses to The internet is freest in US hands

  1. Jigar Doshi 24th September 2013 at 13:08 #

    There is no better constitution for the citizens of a country than the US constitution.

    However the US constitution does not apply to NSA spying on me in India. The rules, the oversight, the checks are far far less.

    If the US constitutional rules which protect US citizens could be in effect when the US spies on me in India that would be pragmatically the best that I could hope for.

    This will not happen because I think it just costs too much…

    Without that and considering American abuses when abroad, I dont think US ownership of the internet is the best system there is.

    I dont want to bring up Abu Gahraib here but to reiterate that the American state when abroad does not follow the same rules as the American state in America.

  2. Pranay 24th September 2013 at 13:36 #

    Hi Nitin,

    Enjoyed reading the article. I had a query though. Isn’t US able to control the internet because a lot of the world’s data belongs to companies of the US? Even if the other countries or the UN mange to form a governance council, do they have the capability to form internet companies that can challenge those in the US?

  3. Sambaran Mitra 24th September 2013 at 14:28 #

    Violently, completely, agree. I have a mad hope that on this issue at least, BJP and Congress will do the right thing (whatever may be the public posturing).
    The only party who can have real grudge against ‘let US control them internets’ stand is the CPIM. They do not have any say in national context now.

  4. Bhagwad Jal Park 24th September 2013 at 21:55 #

    Agreed. Our best hope is that the American people will bring their government to heel. Handing over control to the UN with inputs from places like China, Iran etc would be a disaster.

  5. VirtualPresence 24th September 2013 at 22:44 #

    “privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm. It has a judicial system that is sufficiently independent as to overrule the executive if found violating the US constitution” – this statement is completely false. All whistleblowers, weber, manning, snowden and so on who have come forward to expose the threat to said liberty were prosecuted severly. they have now gone to the extent of creating a law to outline who are journalists. It would be foolish to “trust” any govs not the least a global one. Each nation has a choice to choose its leaders or overthrow them, which unfortunately turns violent, who can mandate any company to follow their laws. the problem here is that all major companies are operating globally but following US laws. The facade of a “judicial oversight” you claim is a total farce as the latest revelations have shown. So, NO, “trusting” US to do the right thing, given their history and blood thirst for power, is not the right thing and MUST be resisted.

  6. Nikhil Mittal 24th September 2013 at 23:54 #

    (I think the formatting was lost in my comment due to angle brackets. Reposting)

    Nice piece of writing. But I beg to disagree with the arguments presented. Let me pick them one by one:

    –The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm.–

    Only one counter argument: Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning – the source of wikileaks. I hope the author is aware of his sentence.

    –it protects everyone’s liberties–

    Sorry, you really wrote that? US presidents have killed so many civilians that may dwarf any dictator/authoritarian. Leave apart liberties they don’t care about right of life for non-US citizens.

    – The vast United Nations system that is accountable to exactly no one.–

    And the US is accountable to whom? They violated their own constitutional provisions for spying on everyone on this planet.

    – Indians are much better off putting their faith in their freedom-loving American counterparts than participating in grandiose international internet governance schemes. –

    The most flawed argument of the whole article. Though we have “genius” laws like 66A still I say NO to “freedom-loving Americans” (lol) or anyone else to decide for _my_ freedom of speech. Instead we must pressurize our govts to keep the internet free.

    Lets not get illusioned by so called “land of free”. It has never been one and it would never be one. It just creates an aura of freedom and other values around itself to justify interfering in sovereign matters of other nations.

  7. vakibs 25th September 2013 at 00:16 #

    > Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech. Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden?

    US constitution is turned to toilet paper by the Patriot act. US legal system has become a badly timed joke. The FISA court is a rubber stamp. US government, especially under Obama, has proved itself par excellence in prosecuting whistle-blowers. That’s precisely why US’s citizen Snowden cannot stand his legal ground and had to flee the country.

    It is laughable to categorically state that some country’s laws are inherently superior to anything else, past or future, here or there. But to do this when the US patriot act is going full-on rampage requires some chutzpah. An Orwellian chutzpah.

    The citizens of USA, more than anybody else in the world, require a global debate on how the internet should be run. Their fundamental rights, more than anybody else’s, are hostage to the biggest military-industrial complex in the world.

    • droope 24th October 2013 at 03:04 #

      Yeah, agreed. You have a whistleblower who spent 3 years in prison without trial, and another one that had to flee to avoid prosecution, yet “there is no better political system”.

      Humbug. I fully support a non-US internet.

  8. gbz 2nd October 2013 at 09:59 #

    The whole issue of US control of the internet is moot. The US government does not, as it is, ‘control’ the internet. Its US based corporations that do. In fact, much of the world’s computer infrastructure, hardware, software, middleware and all layers of the OSI model are run, controlled, standardized and monetized largely by US corporations. What control US exerts on this network, is by virtue of its jurisdiction and capacity to coerce or cajole these US corporations to serve the US national interest, as and how that may be defined.

    The idea of UN controlled internet, inherently makes no sense, since the www itself is, and has always been, outside state control. To transfer some sort of control to UN would imply bringing US corporations under some UN oversight — good luck with that.

    Secondly, its rather odd to argue that we should have expected this level of spying and interdiction on the www, and that its odd that some people are shocked. I would consider myself a realist, maybe even a cynic, but never once would I have believed that US was engaged in such a fundamental breach of internet conventions as what we have discovered. I think people who are not shocked, probably don’t understand how the web came to be, and how it works. There are certain basic assumptions that the entire structure operated on, legal and moral assumptions, which have been shredded. Breaching SSL, sabotaging standards organizations, placing backdoors in network equipment and even regular processors — this is science fiction stuff — the same stuff we ridiculed conspiracy theorists of believing in, like area 51 junkies. And turns out, they were right! We finally understand, why the great free trade champion, blocked huawei from selling network equipment in the US. Just think about it, they can directly access the intel chip running on your laptop right now, and read the threads its running. Maybe we shouldn’t be shocked when they use our iphone cameras to spy on us in our bedrooms. We had it coming..

    • eivind 24th October 2013 at 03:03 #

      Well there is such a thing called the domain name system, which every internet user is depending on virtually all the time. And this is currently controlled by a private US organisation called ICANN, which is subject to US law.

      Basically the internet address system should be governed by a international oganization, much like the telephone system is today. Saying USA is the only country in the world capable of defending free speech is far from true.

    • Craig 24th October 2013 at 03:47 #

      The funny thing is that there are a lot of people out there now saying “told you so! — I’ve known this for years”. Hindsight bias is a strange phenomenon. There’s a big difference between suspecting something and having hard, irrefutable evidence. Richard Stallman has been talking about backdoors and malicious software features for decades and even he was shocked at how bad things are.

  9. Nanda Kishore 15th October 2013 at 12:50 #

    Agreed. I certainly wouldn’t like internet to in the whimsical, semi-autocratic hands of our own politicians or bureaucrats.

    It should shock no one that governments will go to these lengths to further national interest (or security) as they define it. Only the very naive are shocked. Russia and China are certainly not naive, and thanks to the internet they can also put out propaganda to suit their interests, given the relative lack of influence they have in the wider broadcast media. So they will weigh their options quite carefully too.

  10. Dhaakad Tau 19th October 2013 at 15:00 #

    Besides, this idea of a UN governed internet to avoid US monitoring is based on the silly assumption that the US cant monitor that using better technology or that it doesnt monitor even the Chinese Intranet (as you call it) now.
    So all in all a silly and must say, rather dangerous idea.

  11. Sastry Tumuluri 20th October 2013 at 00:25 #

    I disagree. For two big reasons:

    1. The ramifications of NSAGate (leaks starting well before Snowden) are much more than Internet Governance. The author seems to have jumped quickly from those issues — quickly dismissing US (privacy outrage) & international (sovereignty outrage) perhaps mixing them up; and then perhaps linking privacy issues to Freedom of Expression issues (hence the use of “freest in US hands”). These are not the same issues and should not be confused to be so.

    2. The role of ICANN is that of names & numbers assignment. That should not be confused with “local controls of internet / walled-internet” concept (references to Brazil & China). That ICANN itself is not to be confused with “US Govt control” is another matter as rightly pointed out by gbz above.

    Whatever Brazil is attempting to do is not new. India already has most of those guidelines in place (implementation lags, but that’s another matter). It doesn’t need any control of ICANN (ref: Internet Governance). Ditto with China. For their walled internet, they didn’t need to challenge the “control of internet”.

    The last few years of tussles regarding ITU vs ICANN control are of a different nature altogether — and don’t have much to do with NSAGate issues. ref:
    Some discussion on this here (PDF)
    and here.
    ICANN CEO himself has offered to break free of US/UN/any-single-govt control. At first glance, it may look impractical, but it is not.

    Freedom of Expression is at risk in any regime, oppressive or otherwise — irrespective of what happens to ICANN. India is a prime example of this. So no need to link this to internet governance.

    Dismissing US behavior lightly, characterizing it as “spying is usual” is a gross injustice to the brazenness and scale of what has been done.

    Overall, a surprisingly muddled and limited-scope discussion by an otherwise well-respected author.

  12. Francis West 24th October 2013 at 02:35 #

    The internet should continue to be decentralised, as intended, and not be under the control of any one government or people.

    Certainly not the U.S, Russia or China.

    This article just wasted 2 mins of my life.

  13. Moschops 24th October 2013 at 02:43 #

    “Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden? Where is China’s Snowden? Where is Brazil’s Snowden? The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm.”

    Where is America’s Snowden? Not in America. Says it all.

  14. Craig 24th October 2013 at 03:40 #

    ‘Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech”

    That is beyond laughable. Those are nice principles but the U.S. merely preaches them in the abstract. You’ve probably been watching too much Fox News if you believe any different.

    Despite the establishment’s best attempts at secrecy, we still know of a huge number of horribly immoral and probably unconstitutional activities that are endemic in the U.S. From trial-by-fire drone murders to torture to big brother surveillance, wars of choice, economic espionage and negligent chemical spill cover-ups. It’s absolutely ludicrous to preach like this, as if you believe the U.S. has got even an ounce of trust or credibility left. The U.S. is morally bankrupt like never before and hopefully will soon be financially bankrupt too.

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