Chris MarsdenAccording to Professor Chris Marsden, the recent developments in internet governance signal that a historical watershed has been reached which could see control of crucial internet resources and functions being taken by countries other than the US, as a consequence of the Snowden/NSA revelations.

The ‘I’s have spoken – the United States is losing its authority over the Internet naming system. The Global Superpower may lose its pre-eminent position in Internet standard setting. Deborah Brown argued in this blog that the country has lost its moral authority to claim that it speaks for Internet freedom. Next week, the eighth annual United Nations Internet Governance Forum in Indonesia will have to sort through the wreckage of the hyper-power’s fall and try to work out how to take governance forwards.

What are the ‘I’s? They are the bodies setting technical standards for Internet protocols, addressing and the web: they are the fabled ‘wizards who stay up late’ who built this extraordinary technical and social artefact. Specifically they are the heads of the four ‘I’s: Internet Architecture Board (IAB), Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Internet Society (ISOC)[i]. These are the hugely respected organisations that built the Internet. (That is not to argue that they have always been perfect or cannot be improved).

What have they called for? Specifically “they called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.” That means the ending of the Department of Commerce’s contractual control of the ‘root’, and an eventual end to the 1998 ‘Original Sin’ of US government wresting of control of top level domains from the California university where it had been located. It is notable that the flawed outcome of that wresting of control itself, ICANN, showed leadership in the 4 ‘I’s – biting the hand that feeds it, the US government.

The 4 ‘I’s also “reinforced the importance of globally coherent Internet operations, and warned against Internet fragmentation at a national level. They expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance”, as Ian Brown discussed on this blog recently. That should shock no-one, as whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations led to condemnation of President Obama to his face in the United Nations General Assembly. His accuser, President Roussef of Brazil, is to host these institutions and others in April 2014 in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the way forward, in the words of the Montevideo Statement “for ongoing effort to address Internet Governance challenges, and agreed to catalyze community-wide efforts towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation.” Can the 4 ‘I’s with supportive governments create a more open set of standards and governance arrangements for the Internet, or is this paradise lost? That will be on the agenda in Indonesia next week.

Why might the four ‘I’s sudden revolutionary declaration matter more than the US government? Because they have confirmed what the world’s great powers have told the US since Snowden’s revelations broke: the game is over, they no longer will permit their sovereignty to be abused in this way. These include China, Russia, Brazil of course, the rest of MERCOSUR, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, and many others. The United States triumphantly avoided changes to the International Telecommunications Union Regulations in Dubai in December 2012, because European and other allies joined its boycott of the final treaty. Brazil, Russia and China all signed that fundamentally flawed treaty. This time, the US is all but friendless outside the ‘Five Eyes’ master signals intelligence (SIGINT) ring. The 4 ‘I’s of the Internet appear to have more influential allies than the Anglo-Saxon ‘Five Eyes’.

What is most feared is that the end of the ‘Pax America’ on the Internet will mean a fragmentation into many localised Intranets, just as Eben Moglen of Columbia University points out happened at the end of the Western Roman Empire in a fascinating analysis of where US-UK surveillance went wrong. Indeed, the worldwide telegraph system in the nineteenth century was made possible by the ‘Pax Britannica’, and as Jovan Kurbalija reminds us the first successful trans-Atlantic cable was landed in 1865, the first telephone cable in 1956. Our modern global communications system is extremely fragile and very young – in fact much of the world’s railways still runs on different tracks than what Western Europe calls ‘standard gauge’, as Amelia Andersdotter MEP points out: “Opting for a particular standardised norm can also be a political choice” including a globalised Internet Protocol or Domain Name System. Closing down the global Internet into a series of Intranets can also be achieved.

The revelations from 6 June 2013 that the companies supplying the cable connections that carry the vast majority of Internet traffic have been compromised threatens the integrity of the life’s work of many of the engineers who built the Internet and who are represented by the 4 ‘I’s. Standards and the work of the 4 ‘I’s is now nakedly political. Andrew Russell suggests a retrospective of Internet governance institutions including even the most venerable of the 4 ‘I’s shows the inability of standards organisations to avoid path dependence, and concludes: “Perhaps it is time to re-imagine Internet history as a tragedy.”

As Andrew McLaughlin, formerly a key executive in both ICANN and the Obama White House, put the US Internet governance position succinctly: “We’ve kind of blown it.” What happens next is what will be discussed in Indonesia next week.


[i] Other signatories to the Montevideo Statement were the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the regional registries: African Network Information Center (AFRINIC), American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC), Latin America and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC), Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC): http://www.icann.org/en/news/announcements/announcement-07oct13-en.htm

This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.