BRICs push for bigger say in running of Internet

NAIROBI Mon Oct 3, 2011 10:38am EDT

NAIROBI Oct 3 (Reuters) - Campaigners for a loosely regulated Internet are alarmed at the risk to Web freedom from fast-growing BRIC and other emerging economies seeking more say in how the online realm is policed.

They fear tighter government control by authoritarian countries will strangle the liberal culture which has allowed the still-young Internet to thrive as an engine of economic growth and innovation.

China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan last month proposed to the United Nations a global code of conduct embodying among others the principle that "policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of states."

China exercises comprehensive censorship and surveillance over its Internet population of half a billion, the world's biggest, while Uzbekistan is considered an "enemy of the Internet" by press-freedom group Reporters without Borders.

"Some of those countries have a more authoritarian character, and so they're accustomed to interfering with what would otherwise be thought to be freedom of expression," Internet pioneer Vint Cerf told Reuters in an interview at last week's Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi.

India, Brazil and South Africa have also proposed setting up a new UN body to form global Internet policies -- frustrated that their growing economic power is not reflected in the multiple bodies that together keep the Internet running.

The BRICs are not alone in favouring more control.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has championed a law to deal with online copyright piracy by cutting offenders off the Internet, this year convened an Internet summit in Paris, the e-g8, where he made the case for more regulation.

The issues at stake are complex. The same relative absence of regulation that has spurred enormous innovation and empowered the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring has also allowed the spread of child pornography and global online fraud.

The Internet now accounts for 21 percent of GDP growth in mature economies, according to a recent McKinsey study, while its power to mobilise political opposition through sites like Twitter has alarmed governments from China to Iran to Egypt.

Many governments are no longer content to share power in this crucial arena with companies, non-profit organisations, engineers and ordinary citizens through organisations they see as ineffectual.

Currently, the Internet is run by a loose consensus of overlapping interest groups and institutions that have grown up as it has evolved from an academic network under the control of the U.S. government to a global, commercial powerhouse.

Some of these come together once a year at the Internet Governance Forum, which was set up by the United Nations in 2005 in response to a general bewilderment that no one was in charge of something so big and important.

But the IGF's lack of decision-making powers are increasingly frustrating many governments, whose attempts to stop cybercrime, copyright piracy or block content they consider undesirable are largely futile on the borderless Internet.

"We are trying to go into a discussion that makes the participation -- and also the government participation -- of developing countries more effective," Romulo Neves of Brazil's Ministry of External Relations told Reuters in Nairobi.

Neves was emphatic that the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) proposal was a draft and a compromise between three countries, and that Brazil supported the so-called multi-stakeholder model embodied by the IGF.

But many delegates were not convinced, said Lesley Cowley, chief executive of British Internet registry Nominet which manages .uk domains.

"The IBSA proposal for a new UN body that would provide oversight of the existing bodies in this field met with strong criticism from many of those present, who believe this would be an inter-governmental mechanism," she told Reuters.

Cowley said she saw a "long and difficult debate" ahead -- a feeling echoed by Cerf, who said some means would need to be found to deal at least with issues like child porn and fraud.

"If you don't have reciprocity, I don't know how on earth you ever get to the point where you can deal with some of the abuses on the Net," he said.

"So I think there's a big debate that needs to happen, and the IGF may be the best place to start. It won't end there, but it is a place to start." (Editing by Chris Wickham and David Cowell)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (1)
5nChange wrote:
Law will have to find its way into this new domain. Think of the way that Air Traffic was originally handled by a loose confederation of military and civil agencies across the world; eventually the ICAO has become the preeminent regulatory body: It can determine “airworthiness.” It can set regulations for service providers. It guarantees service users a certain degree of safety. Replace the word “airworthiness” with “networthiness” and you’re talking about a regulatory body for the cyber domain. It’s going to happen…but it will take a long time to develop the techniques, technologies, regulations, and experts to manage it.

The net, just like all other domains, has proven to be what we humans make of it. Since we have proven an inability to operate with benign due-regard in all other domains (on the seas, in the air, in public spaces) there’s no reason to believe we can do so here. The debate will be about where the line is drawn between the protection of state control and protection of individual liberties.

People who think that there is no need for some state control are naive. There is an increasing move towards convincing international bodies that a damaging cyber attack is an act of war. Consider Estonia’s appeal to use Article V NATO protections against Russia’s cyber attack in 2007. In some countries, hundreds of thousands of computers are on the internet with “lax” security and could conceivably be herded into a giant bot-net to execute a DDOS attack, at the behest of a foreign hacker, on another state. Would that make the host country an unintentional aggressor, liable for war damages?

On the other hand, I think the vision of state control offered by China and Uzbekistan are well beyond what many western nations would accept.

Oct 04, 2011 5:52am EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.