NSA furore has roots in US internet imperialism
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) In November 2012, more than 2,000 civil servants and IT specialists from across the world gathered in Dubai for the World Conference on International Telecommunications.
A largely procedural event, the conference aim was to update a global telecoms treaty last negotiated in 1988. But from the outset, the event was marked by intensive political and commercial lobbying, particularly on behalf of the US. Ambassador David Gross, a lawyer and government co-ordinator for communications policy, led a well-funded and powerful campaign in the months leading up to the conference. Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Comcast and AT&T were all on board, and the US press ran on-message examinations exploiting anti-UN feeling, concerns about Chinese or Russian control of the internet and warnings that certain proposed revisions were for the benefit of dinosaur telecoms firms.
After two weeks of complex negotiations, the treaty failed. The US saw the failure as a victory, claiming that the internet has never needed UN regulation and that the treaty was not consistent, in the words of US delegation head Terry Kramer, "with the multistakeholder model of internet governance". The US was joined by the UK and others, including most of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and Kenya.
The US claimed that the treaty attempted to extend its telecoms remit to "grab control of the internet", which one critic said would see the internet develop conflicting standards and competing jurisdictions on a par with the European train system. Countries which unsuccessfully supported the revised International Telecommunications Regulations claimed the opposite; that the treaty enables standardisation, as it has done historically with dialling codes and consistent phone keyboards. They argued that the lobbying was more about protecting a western-dominated, US-centric internet administration.
In the wake of the revelations over the extent of international surveillance conducted by America's National Security Agency, the aggressive US strategy around internet governance seems to have had a different agenda. Richard Hill was one of the key players at the UN's International Telecommunication Union and co-ordinated the ITR conference, but has since retired. He told the Guardian that at the time, he had thought US pressure was based on defending its commercial interests.
"Many countries are not comfortable with what they perceive as the dominant role of the US," he said. "In Dubai, many people were wondering why the US was making so much fuss about such treaty provisions that were in fact inoffensive from a legal point of view. Why were they expending so much political capital for so little? At the time, many thought it was a question of principle. After the revelations concerning the NSA surveillance, it seems reasonable to infer that the US did not wish to agree to anything that might limit its surveillance programmes – and having to co-operate with other countries might have such an effect."
Hill said some countries appeared to support key changes to the treaty, but then rejected them at the crucial final stage. Now with the Snowden revelations public, many countries are questioning the agenda of the US and argue that, because of its aggressive lobbying at the Dubai conference, the fallout has been exacerbated, says Hill.
Leading the charge against the US is Brazil, which voted for the revised treaty in Dubai. President Dilma Rousseff has accused the US of breaching international law, and announced plans for a national secure email service, an alternative internet infrastructure that will mean data cables are not routed through US soil, and updates to the marco civil legislative bill to tighten domestic cybersecurity. Rousseff also this month met with Fadi Chehadé – a man the US had "vetted" to run Icann, the organisation which oversees internet addresses – and came out of the meeting having agreed to host a summit on internet governance in Rio in April 2014. "The trust in the global internet has been punctured," Chehadé said after the meeting. "Now it's time to restore this trust through leadership and institutions that can make that happen."
The accusation of internet imperialism is something the US fiercely defends, but it has its roots in the creation of the internet, and before it Arpanet, which was established between four US universities in 1969. The ethical and administrative bodies that oversee the internet are diverse and almost deliberately complicated, and present a forest of acronymed organisations including technical standards (IAB, IETF and W3C) and regional domains (AFRINIC, LACNIC and APNIC).
Icann is symbolically important and retains a link to the US government. The two have an "affirmation of commitment", but the US government's National Telecommunications and Information Administration has granted Icann the key Iana contract since 1999.
This contract involves managing the database that connects domain names, such as .com, .org and .co.uk, to their numeric address. There are only 13 authoritative root servers globally, but one principal at the centre which is then mirrored. This central root server is administered by Verisign, and is held at its base in Dulles, Virginia – one of the most symbolically important computers in the world.
Companies outside the US were not allowed to compete for the Iana contract, and having this central component controlled by the US government – with changes to top level domains passing through the US department of commerce – has long been been a point of contention.
The Iana contract is likely to be high on the agenda at the Rio internet governance summit next April. The outcome of this heated response to the Snowden revelations is unpredictable, says Hill. The average internet user will see little difference. But it is conceivable that Icann will further look to distance itself from the US, and could assert that a new server outside the US should become the authoritative root server. If the US resists, and two competing servers begin to compile increasingly different records of internet addresses, it could signify a true split in the global internet network. In the worst case scenario, some websites could become inaccessible to people in other parts of the world.
In reality, there are far too many commercial interests for that to happen. There is increasing pressure on the US government by its own technology companies to be more transparent about its surveillance and move to heal the rift in consumer confidence of companies such as Google and Facebook. Brazil is likely to push for plans to remodel Icann, which would include a more global, legal framework.
Milton Mueller, an internet policy professor, helped to draft proposals for Icann transition in 2009, and though the model still stands, the ground has shifted for the US government.
"There is no indication that official US policy toward hanging on to the Iana contract has changed," he said.
"However, when the so-called multistakeholder internet organisations that the US purports to defend all unambiguously call for an end to that, the US position is de-legitimised."
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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