By Susan Harris
NETmundial, a multi stakeholder meeting on internet governance was held on April 23-24 in Sao Paulo in Brazil where around 97 countries came along with academics and technology gurus and internet activists and businessmen. It has been criticized as a vacuous exercise that achieved nothing more than a rhetorical conclusion to all the anxiety that has been going around since the Snowden revelations.
The future of the Internet is indubitably changing. Net Neutrality is a thing of the past as the internet takes on features of a society-distinctly social, economic and political. The economic aspect is getting less attention than it deserves because Internet is seen optimistically as a big business that is aligned closely with innovation and growth. Therefore worries such as the prospect of an internet bubble are swept under the carpet. Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp may not be typical big fish eating small fish. Similarities have been noted between the current situation and the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s. Businesses consuming other businesses that have no clear revenue is problematic because the excess liquidity cannot be balanced infinitely by the firm’s entrepreneurial value because like stocks its value or popularity may crash just the same way it shot up. Of course there is the utopian worldview that conventional economic wisdom does not apply to the Internet as there is a different kind of economics at play here. This might have been considered a credible argument if one had not become weary after the Bitcoin bust.
Internet activists who ask for no interference and engagingly ask that you don’t ‘screw up’ show an amazing ignorance of the issue. The issue is not turning the Internet to a governmental tool but making it a safer and securer place for people across the world to use. Monopoly on such a ubiquitous service is like having a monopoly on water. The terms and conditions are all yours. As of now the US enjoys monopoly on a lot of hardware and software that is daily used by a sizeable portion of the world community. This access to different countries and peoples is what provides the internet penetration which in turn is a veritable tool to extract information from other countries. Back doors that are built into such technology or complex algorithical formulations on the internet that invade your privacy are hard to catch because one is unfamiliar with the territory. Other services such as social media or cloud services have the same privilege of being routinely available to people across the world. The danger lies in the convergence between these services that Internet can provide to parties with vested interests.
IBSA, India Brazil and South Africa declared in 2011 that what is needed is a multilateral, democratic and transparent internet and demanded ‘enhanced cooperation’. In fact this is one area where state intervention is decidedly harmless as only states can leverage power to demand equality and force a dissolve of the monopoly. Further India proposed that a UN body be set up called Committee for Internet Related Policies [UN-CIRP].
This coupled with some strong statements from Brazil seemed to pit strategic advantage, enough to spur the countries into some action. Dilma Roussef strongly condemned the surveillance at the opening of the general debate of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly:
“Tampering in such a manner in the affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and an affront to the principles that must guide relations among them, especially among friendly nations”
Now take her remarks from the NETmundial:
“The first such premise is that we all want to protect the Internet as a democratic space, available to end use by all, as a shared asset, and as such, truly heritage of humankind, more than simply a work tool and way beyond its well‐known contribution for economic growth, provided, of course, that it be increasingly inclusive. …The second premise or assumption is the desire we all share to incorporate an increasingly broader audience into this process.”
They show that her heart is in the right place but unfortunately this shows a poor assessment of the situation where things can be righted by providing equality now because representation is almost never equal to equality. A bill or law allowing access cannot dismantle structures and hierarchies already in place. A misrecognition of the problem is worse because only a new scoop will elicit some radical action.
This is also indicative of the biggest problem of the solution of multi stakeholders. A multi stakeholder model is contract based and in keeping with the general capital economy of the contemporary world. However there is no scope for human rights or exploitation in such a body. Everything is expected to move according to the rules, but if they don’t, then what?