Halting internet fragmentation tops agendas

Growing censorship, the threat of data controls and unequal access pose serious challenges to web

People hold masks of Edward Snowden at the NETmundial conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

People hold masks of Edward Snowden at the NETmundial conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

 

The World Wide Web marked its 25th birthday last month amidst of growing concerns that, while it may be world wide, the internet is increasingly threatened with fragmentation.

How to keep the internet one, in the face of issues such as government censorship, threatened tighter controls on the movement of data outside national and regional locales, and unequal access to it in the developing world, topped the agenda at both the giant NETmundial governance meeting in Brazil two weeks ago, and the Freedom Online Coalition conference in Estonia.

Comprising 23 democracies that claim a focus on internet freedom and security, the coalition brought together governments, businesses and civil society representatives, such as human rights groups, in Tallinn, and dedicated a closing conference session to the “one internet” issue.

What does “one” internet mean? a panel was asked. Is the goal to make the internet safe for democracy, or for Big Business? Were governments and multinationals calling the shots, leaving civil society behind? And would rising alarm over the scale of data surveillance and safety push countries to pursue “data localisation” – limiting the global locations to which citizens’ data can be sent?

Vint Cerf, one of the original architects of the internet, now a vice-president and “chief internet evangelist” at Google, told the nearly 500 conference participants that he had a generally optimistic view of the future.

The principles on net governance agreed on at NETmundial were “quite workable. I think it is one step in many steps we have to take”, he said, noting that several international meetings in coming weeks would provide further opportunity for hammering out details.

Sally Costerton, senior adviser to the president of Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which coordinates domain names and internet addresses, agreed that “everyone [at NETmundial] felt they got something they wanted from it – perhaps not everything, but something.”

An important development was the indication that a broad and diverse range of groups and people were interested in being involved in changes happening to Icann, as it moves from being a US-centric organisation in membership to bringing in an international governance perspective, she said.

Cerf, who headed Icann himself in the past, described NETmundial as “a win for the multi- stakeholder model”, where a broad range of stakeholders should be involved in the running of the internet.

This is a critical element for maintaining an open and unfragmented internet, according to proponents such as Cerf. This model is set against one of “multi-lateral stakeholders”, where nations or a closed group, such as telecommunications companies, negotiate policy among themselves.

Into the multilateral stakeholder basket go industry lobbies and governments opposing “net neutrality” – a policy that proposes internet service providers and governments should treat all traffic on the internet the same way, rather than allowing higher fees to be charged for certain types of data, uses or services.

Governments proposing the creation of their own, closed- border national internets, such as Russia, or the isolation of citizen data within national or regional borders, such as Brazil and some EU countries, are also seen as multi-lateral supporters who could contribute to a fragmented net.

Most sessions at the two-day event had acknowledged that the revelations by Edward Snowden of mass covert surveillance by the NSA in the US, and GCHQ in England, had accelerated proposals to localise data – often referred to as a “Balkanisation” of data – in some countries.

But human rights activists had warned that such proposals were not always what they seemed. For example, Joana Varon Ferraz, of Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade da Fundação Getulio Vargas, Brazil, noted several times during the event that Brazil’s motivations in agreeing to build new undersea broadband cables, and calling for data to be held only within its borders, were more about increasing its own access to its citizen’s data, and opportunities for internal covert surveillance.

Another irony was that so many were focused on supposedly maintaining a unity and universality of an internet that was already deeply fractured, said Joy Liddicoat, human rights specialist with the Association for Progressive Communications.

“What does one [internet] actually mean?” she asked, noting that there were areas of the world where entire service platforms, such as YouTube, had been blocked from citizens, in some cases for more than a year.

“There are more boundaries now than any time since the internet was created,” she added.

She also questioned whether a completely free and unfettered internet was desirable. The arrival of new technologies, such as Google Glass, highlighted this complication, she said, as its use could contribute to cyberstalking and the ongoing problem of violence against women.

“One internet isn’t one where all freedoms are unbounded. It’s one where we begin to negotiate those freedoms,” she said. “Unbounded freedom has the potential to inhibit the freedom of another.”

The panel also tussled with whether a free and open “one internet” might contribute to the power of American multinational corporations and a US-centric online culture, at the expense of diverse languages and cultures and the survival of smaller businesses.

Unsurprisingly, “father of the internet” Cerf had a clear view on that.

“Nonsense!” he said.

“The internet is designed to let anyone who wants to get access to it, and share information on it . . . This is not an instrument for preserving homogeneity at the cultural level, it’s an instrument for expressing heterogeneity at the cultural level.”

And as for the issue of whether Google and other companies were “somehow dominant”, he added, “I have to remind you that Google didn’t exist forever.” Other companies were there before, and others will come after.

The internet creates opportunity, he said. “We want to keep it as open as possible so another two graduate students in some obscure dorm somewhere can create another idea which catches fire – that’s the internet we want.”

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