In the wake of last year's defeat of the controversial ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) treaty in Europe and of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) bills in the United States, both of which called on intermediaries to police consumers' use of the Internet, digital rights activists in the West have naturally gained a heightened sensitivity to their governments intruding on Internet freedoms.
One indication of this was how aggressively they opposed all Internet-related proposals at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) last December.
The fear was that although many of those proposals seemed modest, they were the vanguard of a movement from governments to more broadly address Internet governance issues such as online freedom of expression, security and privacy through purely intergovernmental processes, rather than through existing, more open and inclusive, multi-stakeholder mechanisms.
There are three assumptions that seem to underlie this fear:
- Governments should not be involved in Internet governance.
- If governments are involved in Internet governance, it should only be at the national level, not at the global level.
- If governments are involved in Internet governance at the global level, there are existing, bottom-up multi-stakeholder mechanisms through which they can address all their concerns, instead of resorting to the ITU.
In fact, if all three assumptions are disproved, it follows that finding a more acceptable way for governments to participate in global Internet governance is imperative. So let's examine those assumptions in turn.
The need for governments at the national level
The first assumption, that governments don't have a legitimate role in governance of the Internet, seems so far-fetched that I might be accused of raising a straw-man argument – yet it is a serious school of thought called cyber-libertarianism, and flows almost as an axiom from the framing of advocacy for online rights and freedoms (particularly by activists from the United States) as the “Internet freedom” movement.
Moreover, this cyber-libertarian framing is not reserved to those who are otherwise politically libertarian.
Even politically progressive activists are inclined to be more distrustful of governmental intervention online than offline, in an expression of Internet ‘exceptionalism’, which holds that the Internet is different and deserving of a more hands-off regulatory approach.
To accept the cyber-libertarian proposition is to deny any role for government intervention at the national level, in areas that many of us actively support, such as:
- Passing network neutrality rules that would prevent network operators from discriminating against particular types of Internet content or services.
- Providing incentives for the migration to the next generation version of the Internet protocol, IPv6 – a task at which the forces of markets and norms have so far manifestly failed.
- Setting enforceable standards for the protection of consumers’ personal data that go further than the weak voluntary codes of practice adopted by segments of industry.
- Extending universal service policies so that consumers in rural areas are guaranteed a basic level of Internet service, enabling them to participate in the information society on an equal footing with their city-dwelling peers
But in 2013, it seems increasingly implausible that the legitimate interests of all consumers in having affordable access to the open Internet, whilst maintaining their own privacy, can be secured without targeted government intervention of some sort or other.
Part 2 in this blog series, describing the need for governments at the global level, will be available next week.