The Internet's Broken Promises - Is Balkanisation Inevitable?

In my previous blog I discussed the overall cost of US-based surveillance operations, including the commercial impact of Edward Snowden‘s actions in making public what he knew. I have since been told that I seriously under-estimated the latter. Some believe that his actions make a take-over by the ITU almost inevitable, unless those who really do want the Internet to remain an open network of networks, (evolving over time in response to a mix of technology push and market pull), respond constructively and forcefully to the concerns of  those who support such a take-over. Earlier this week I attended the UK Internet Governance Forum and promised to blog on why this year’s IGF at Bali will be so important (despite, perhaps because of, attempts to kill it off). I was trying to get my head round what is at stake and the arguments to make, when I was delighted to receive the offer of a guest blog, putting the issues into context, from Jan Malinowski, Head of the Information Society Department of the Council of Europe, under the heading:

The Internet’s Broken Promises – Is Balkanisation Inevitable“.   

Jan’s balanced and thoughtful approach is exactly what is needed. I will stop here and hand over to him:

“In 1939, the surrealist André Breton nicknamed that other surrealist Salvador Dalí “Avida Dollars”, implying that he subordinated artistic creativity to eager money-making. After that, many considered that Dalí’s time was over; they saw only the surface, and their predictions turned out to be wrong.

Certain pundits are now predicting the decline of the open and universal Internet and some are forecasting almost catastrophic scenarios. Recently, they have been basing their arguments on the unearthing of “Avida Data” states which are throwing billions into avidly hoovering up vast amounts of digital data. The threat is serious, the outcome unknown.

Massive eavesdropping and indiscriminate surveillance have been added to the list of broken promises – or false assumptions – about the Internet being a space of freedom and prosperity for all. Over the years, many extraordinary threats to the Internet have been put forward. First there was spam, then phishing and fraud, Trojans, child pornography and grooming, and rampant cybercrime. These threats have been compounded by the development of cyber-war capabilities, cyber-drones, backdoors and exploits. National security was vaguely advanced to justify everything, or almost. But security and control without freedom, transparency and a participatory environment are tantamount to despotism.

Alongside these developments, the knitting together of the web continued, the number of users grew; speed, processing and storage capacity accelerated vertiginously; services, applications and content multiplied; and, with some ups and downs, cracks grew on national or territorial intranet fortresses. Cyber hostilities now lead to discussions on rules of engagement.

What did we learn from Edward Snowden that we didn’t already know or suspect? We knew that many different agencies and commercial or other entities hoard vast amounts of personal information and data, that ‘big data’ is mainly for the service of commercial interests, and that security agencies also engages in widespread data fishing justified on grounds of anti-terrorism and national security. Some laws prescribe massive data retention, raising little more than curiosity on the part of the guardians of fundamental rights and freedoms.

The signs were there for all to see. You only had to listen to cyber-dissidents or civil liberties organisations, to read leaked information or published laws – a Swedish law on surveillance of cross-border electronic communications is awaiting decision by the European Court of Human Rights, for example – and, increasingly, public debates on human rights and Internet governance. The European Parliament rang the alarm about Echelon and the US courts heard about Carnivore over a decade ago.

History has shown that people are able to deal with historical inevitabilities, and to make them evitable. Edward Snowden, hero or villain, whistle-blower or traitor, has helpfully triggered collective awareness, reproach and discussion that could lead to change. Dalí thought that the deliberate and desirable delusion that nurtures fantasy requires a check: awareness that reason has been suspended.

There are fundamental rules and human rights principles that apply to the Internet. The vast majority of countries have accepted them – 167 states are party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Human rights are enforceable against state institutions in many of those countries and scores of them can be held to account before international bodies. 820 million people have a right to bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights. The 47 Council of Europe member states have formally committed themselves to preserving the integrity, universality and openness of the Internet, and have agreed on Internet governance principles and the concrete meaning of human rights on the Internet. There is no inevitability. These are also the antidotes against balkanisation or fragmentation, and they have to be used – but much remains to be done.

On the Internet, we are all – young or old, corporate, government or private – still immature, trying to find our bearings, learning the “do’s” and “don’ts”. Internet freedom is not a bunch of broken promises, but a process that has not yet gone beyond a ‘storming’ stage, awaiting its own social contract. All stakeholders have to make progress, embrace new codes of conduct, abide by reinterpreted fundamental principles, and acquire new sensitivities, awareness and social skills. Education – of state and non-state actors alike, not only users – is fundamental for compliance. And above all, some will have to embrace transparency and show commitment, respect and leadership in the process, whether state or non-state actors, putting aside puerile disregard, precipitation and arrogance.

Of course, this will not resolve all of the problems. As in any sizeable community, there will continue to be mavericks, rule-breakers and antisocial conduct. In the international community there are also those who abuse the means at hand, and despots, without the conventional / cyber distinction. This should not deter us from the objective of protecting and promoting human rights and the rule of law also on the Internet, alongside its universality, integrity and openness. Window dressing and paying lip service to Internet freedom will not do. We need to fight to preserve our imperfect democracy, which remains the best form of government we can have.

Some have alluded to a constitutional moment for the Internet. Perhaps the time is coming for such a process, based on multi-stakeholder dialogue, each contributing according to their respective roles and responsibilities.”