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The Cyber Cold War

In the battle for control of the Internet, the US holds most of the cards. Now Russia and China are calling for greater individual state power, while others argue the UN is best placed to manage the global network.

by Andréa Fradin On August 29, 2012

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The United States is not giving up control of the Internet. Or more precisely, the management of some of the net’s core functions, such as the management of the root file, coordinated within ‘Made in the USA’ institutions such as ICANN or Verisign, who can (en masse) create or delete new domains (.somethings).

Not that there hasn’t been, for many years, a concerted effort to change how the governance of the Internet works. The latest attempt, still in progress, is centred on the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12). Expected to take place in Dubai in December, the event is being run by the UN and one of its agencies, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The conference will provide an opportunity to review the “International Telecommunication Regulations” (ITR’s), which “govern how all kinds of information and communication networks are connected between countries“. The latest version of the regulations dates back to…1988. An eternity in Internet time.

Some countries see amending these regulations as the ideal opportunity to shake up the rules of the game for the Internet, and would like to entrust the UN and its ITU with new responsibilites for governing the global network. Right now the ITU is responsible for the “harmonious interconnection of networks and technologies” and working towards “access for disadvantaged communities to ICT [information and communications technology]“. But of the more sensitive issues, such as net regulation, it’s on the outside looking in.

For the US such a revolution appears to be out of the question. They’ve already suggested the upcoming WCIT-12 conference should be an opportunity “to introduce stronger regulatory constraints to the global telecommunications sector, and indeed in the Internet sector“.

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It’s important to note, however, that the loudest voices calling for reform are China and Russia, not renowned for their permissiveness when it comes to regulating the Internet. While the contents of their initial proposals remain to be seen, some have found it difficult to have faith in their intentions. In addition to raising questions about the governance of the net, both countries are also arguing for cybersecurity issues to be recognised within the International Telecommunication Regulations, traditionally sovereign issues that have until now been separated from any transnational regulations.

For their part, Russia “proposes the introduction of special provisions dealing with the  security of international telecommunication services“, since development in the sector has outstripped the laws and regulations governing it. That proposal can be found on page 25 of a compilation made public in late June by a site – http://wcitleaks.org/ – which organised the leak of many secret contributions in the name of greater “transparency”.

Russia would like to add a new component to the ITR’s, entitled “Confidence and Security of Telecommunications / ICT” (see page 181), which would cover:

Physical and operational security; cybersecurity, cybercrime, and cyber attacks; denial of service attacks; other online crime; controlling and countering unsolicited electronic communication (e.g spam); and protection of information and personal data (e.g. phishing).

Supported by Cuba, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, this possibility was rejected outright by the United Kingdom, Canada and France, who argue that those issues should remain strictly within the national scope.

On August 2, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the White House to act to put a stop to this mood of change regarding the Internet.

The proposals, in international bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, (…) and the International Telecommunication Union, would justify under international law increased government control over the Internet and would reject the current multi-stakeholder model that has enabled the Internet to flourish and under which the private sector, civil society, academia, and individual users play an important role in charting its direction.

Imminent danger

While the text has no legal teeth for now, it has nevertheless been dissected and commented on by many observers. Many tow the same line as official authorities: to hand the governance and security of the network to the United Nations would represent an imminent danger. “Several proposals now on the table would cast a devastating blow to the Internet by blessing the efforts of individual countries to build their own closed and controlled national Web 3.0 Internet spaces today,” announced Dwayne Winseck,  Professor of Journalism & Communication at Carleton University.

Others have argued that the current model is not so multi-stakeholder after all. While ICANN vaunts the independent quality of its organisation, composed of independent ISP’s, “commercial and non-profit interests” and “representatives of more than 100 governments”, it still remains inherently tied to the US Department of Commerce. Moreover, “even though participation [in institutions such as ICANN] is in theory open to anybody, in practice only a limited number of groups from outside the developed West can afford the time and have the technical expertise, English-language skills, and funds to send people around the world to attend regular meetings,” as Rebecca McKinnon put it writing in Foreign Policy.

Others have been more aggressive in their condemnation, inviting the United States to get their own house in order before opening a witch hunt against the UN. “A note to Congress: the United Nations isn’t a serious threat to Internet freedom—but you are,” argued two Washington researchers in an article in The Atlantic. According to Jerry Brito and Adam Thierer, US politicians “have the wrong target“. The article recalls the events of past year – the SOPA saga, the WikiLeaks blockade – which revealed a tendency on the part of the US to want to police the net. A tendency that’s much stronger, and much more apparent, than any projected onto the UN.

The most serious threat to Internet freedom is not the hypothetical spectre of United Nations control, but the very real creeping cyber-statism at work in the legislatures of the United States and other nations.

Milton Mueller, an American expert on governance issues, agrees. Owni spoke to Mueller in the course of an article explaining the roots of the Internet.

The biggest threats are at the national level. States (including not just India, China and Russia but the US, Great Britain, and other Western democracies) have taken major steps to impose new regulations and controls on the Internet insofar as they can within their territorial jurisdiction.

USA: Simply the least worst

Mueller argues, however, that UN control would be no less harmful.

If the world’s governments lock down the Internet nationally and then agree on how to control it globally, it would indeed be dangerous.

But according to the Syracuse University professor, this is precisely what states such as China and Russia are looking to do.  “Since 1998, Russia has supported – and the US has opposed – the development of a treaty that would ban the use of cyberspace for military purposes,” says Mueller. “[...] The Russians still see themselves as the weaker party in the cyber-warfare game and would like a treaty similar to the chemical weapons agreements, which prohibit the use of certain technologies as weapons.” He concludes:

The recent leaks about the US role in developing Flame and Stuxnet should make it clear why the US has been unwilling to bind itself to any such limitations.

Faced with a scenario whereby the UN is devoured by national interests, many are opting to maintain the status quo: a US stranglehold over some of the basic functions of the Internet, as the least worst solution. “So far, fortunately, the US has not engaged in any scandalous management of the root,” French engineer Stéphane Bortzmeyer argued in early July. Before conceding:

With the Internet, it’s a bit of a balance of terror.

Image Credits: heretakis (CC-BY-NC), winterofdiscontent (CC-BY-NC-SA)

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