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Power and democracy on the Net

Opinión
10/04/2014
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Article published in Spanish in ALAI’s magazine Revista América Latina en Movimiento  Internet, power and democracy 10/06/2014
Over a space of barely two decades, the Internet and digital technologies have found a place in the daily routine of a great part of humankind. And around these technologies an endless number of spheres of our societies are being reorganized. They are so convenient – and seductive – that to live without them is almost unthinkable; and this is only a beginning, with respect to the changes that are coming.
 
Nonetheless, the speed with which all this is happening leaves us no time to fully appreciate their implications in a number of areas, from economic organization to political power, and embracing human rights, cultural development or social structures. But there are some very disturbing signs.
 
Even though the Internet was originally conceived as an open, decentralized and non-commercial sphere (and indeed, in many ways it has effectively contributed to democratizing communications), in the last two decades of commercialization an unprecedented concentration and centralization has emerged. On the one hand there is technological concentration, illustrated, for example, by the immense international fiber-optic cables[1]that interconnect countries. On the other hand, there is the concentration of content and personal data, whether in the so-called social networks, in the servers that offer data storage in the “cloud”, in monopolies such as Google, that track personal data and behavior on the net, or in companies that collect “big data” and establish profiles of users, as well as in security agencies, among others.
 
The revelations made by Edward Snowden concerning espionage by the US National Security Agency (NSA) confirm the fact that the uses of this information go from spying on diplomats (with even luxury hotels lending a hand) in order to obtain advantages in international negotiations, to manipulating intimate data on political leaders of whatever country, either in order to publically discredit them when convenient, or for blackmail purposes. In addition, it has come to light that there are companies that create profiles of users that include consumers’ vulnerabilities, so they can be exploited more effectively[2].
 
Up to this point, we have been referring to the trails that everyone leaves as they navigate the digital world. But with the next generation of intelligent devices – that are already on their way in – daily life at home or on the street will generate these kind of footprints, beginning with the Smart TV, the intelligent refrigerator, the electricity meter that communicates with the company, the smoke alarm that alerts the fire department, the vehicle license plate readers on highways... only to mention a few. All of these will have the capacity to track and communicate elements such as consumption, schedules, movements, habits (smoking, insomnia, diets), etc.
 
It is estimated that barely one per cent of the devices apt to have an IP address (Internet identifier) actually have one at present. In the future, every new gadget will be part of the Network, and it will be increasingly difficult – and inconvenient – to choose to disconnect them. This phenomenon is known as “the Internet of things”. In tomorrow’s world, unless controls and protections are introduced, almost everything that we do will be copied, stored, analyzed, reprocessed and sold to someone unknown to us. The power that this infinity of data will accrue to the few entities with sufficient capacity to compile and process such a volume of information simply blows the mind.
 
Concentration on fast track
 
This phenomenon of concentration is due to the particular characteristics of the network economics (the so-called network effect), which leads to the formation of monopolies, due to the fact that users gravitate to the most successful service, where they can join the crowd.  Because of this, the Internet is at present dominated by a dozen megacorporations (all from the United States), that take over their competitors along the way. The majority have been going for less than fifteen years.  With the phenomenal power of these corporations, the rest of the world is facing an updated version of neocolonialism, with the consequences of cultural domination, wealth extraction and political interference.
 
The fact that there is no longer any privacy or security in communications is more than worrying.  But even more dangerous is the rearrangement of power, concentrated in the hands of those who control the technology and knowledge. This power allows them to accumulate more wealth, more technological sophistication, and thus even more power, in a vicious circle that is threatening the future of democracy itself. This power is concentrated in security agencies (mainly, though not exclusively, in the “Five Eyes” Alliance of the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and in the huge Internet monopolies. And there is a clear collusion between the two, evidenced by the clandestine “back doors” integrated into the hardware and software sold by these companies – or provided “cost-free” – which eases the work of security agencies in obtaining and decoding information.
 
Many governments are worried by the revelations concerning the scale of spying by these security agencies. But that does not imply that they themselves all have a clear conscience. It is well-known that many governments undertake similar practices, although on a lesser scale. And there are authorities that may be tempted to abstain from criticising the NSA in exchange for receiving data that serves to boost their own power.
 
With respect to citizens, until recently, the majority have been using digital technologies without worrying about who manages or controls them; but with these latest revelations, there appears to be a new awareness that this issue is indeed important. Nevertheless, while digital technology advances exponentially, the legal frameworks, rights and mechanisms to guarantee the rule of law are still moving at the pace of the analogical world. And while some countries do have frameworks of protection that are somewhat more advanced in this matter, such as the European Union, and soon Brazil (which has just approved the Civil Framework of the Internet in the Chamber of Deputies), their reach is still limited in the face of an Internet without borders.
 
The multistakeholder model
 
What this situation has brought to light is that the mechanisms of management and governance in the Internet realm are not functioning as they should, or at least not for the benefit of the majority. Here we have one more area – alongside the environment, climate change or the world financial system – where the absence of adequate and democratic mechanisms of global governance is exposing the world to potentially grave consequences.
 
From the early days of the Internet, and in particular since the negotiations at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, 2003/2005) the US have imposed the “multistakeholder model” as the standard for Internet governance. This model nominally involves the participation of governments, the private sector and civil society; but in practice it is private enterprise that calls the shots in decision-making. In the bodies that control the Internet, the tendency is to prioritize this model over multilateral (intergovernmental) bodies, as if the two were mutually exclusive, without distinguishing between technical areas – where the private sector may have certain competencies – and areas of public policy (rights, resolution of conflicting interests, restrictions on monopolies) that call for democratic legitimacy.
 
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has gone so far as to propose that the multistakeholder model should replace the mechanisms of the United Nations, which are regarded as archaic and inefficient.  The report of the Global Redesign Initiative of the WEF, entitled Everybody’s Business: Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World[3] proposes “better coordination” between a self-select group of leaders as the best way to address complex problems.  Intergovernmental agreements, international frameworks and enforceable hard law are seen as things of the past; the times demand voluntarism, codes of conduct and non-binding legislation.  As for democracy… well, it seems we are moving instead towards “post-democracy”.
 
This multistakeholder model is already being implemented in a number of international forums for making public policies related to industry and commerce, but the governance of the Internet may well be where it is most advanced, and its extension looks like an attempt to extend it to other areas, in these times when economic powers are seeking answers to the global economic crisis.
 
In this context, it is significant to note that the multistakeholder model is at the centre of the proposals for the next NetMundial meeting, convened by the government of Brazil.
 
NetMundial
 
It was following the revelations of espionage of the NSA on the Brazilian Government, including on President Dilma Rouseff herself, that she called for a world meeting on the future of governance of the Internet. “NetMundial”[4] is defined as a “Global Multistakeholder Meeting” which will take place in São Paulo the 23rd and 24th of April, 2014. Twelve countries are acting as hosts: Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, Tunis Turkey and the United States.
 
The meeting will consider two central themes: the elaboration of universal (non-binding) principles for the Internet; and a proposal of a road-map for the future evolution of the governance ecosystem of the Internet. Physical participation will be limited to approximately 700 – 800 people (plus journalists), including representatives of governments, the private sector and civil society, but there will also be facilities for remote participation, both online and through local “hubs” connected by Internet, involving 33 confirmed hubs in 23 countries. In addition, a process was created for the previous presentation of documents by interested stakeholders; over 180 contributions can be consulted online. [5]
 
Carlos Afonso, member of the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br) and a civil society rep on the executive committee for NetMundial, responded to ALAI’s questions on the organization of NetMundial and its relation to other existing processes for Internet governance. He specifies that “The Brazil meeting has been jointly convened by the government of Brazil and a forum of entities of the so-called “technical community” (1net[6]), created by these entities in follow-up to the Montevideo Declaration[7]: a statement motivated by the perception of the massive scale of the espionage carried out by the US and their allies England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.” With respect to participation mechanisms, which have been subject to criticisms on the part of some sectors of civil society, Afonso explains that under the egis of CGI.br and 1Net, a process of selection was set up to establish committees in charge of the whole process of organization, definitions and logistics of the event. He adds that the multistakeholder executive committee will undertake to seek “the best possible balance of representation employing various criteria: regional, presence of countries “of the South”, gender criteria and others for the three sectors (civil society, private sector, and the technical/academic community).”
 
Concerning the difference between NetMundial and other forums such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) or WSIS+10, Carlos Afonso responds that “The IGF is a forum established and controlled by the general secretariat of the United Nations, currently under the coordination of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), following the Tunis agreements at the end of the WSIS process in 2005. Under pressure from the secretariat and with the support of representatives of the private sector and some Western governments, the IGF to date has been unable to make any recommendations. WSIS+10 is part of a process of evaluation of the Tunis agreements that will culminate in an event scheduled for 2015”.
 
With respect to the central elements in play in the global negotiations on Internet governance, Afonso is of the view that they include first: “the coordination of the logical infrastructure of the net: distribution and assignment of domain names and IP addresses; definition of protocols and secure methods in the domain names system; coordination of methods of connection and ‘routing’ etc. Basically this involves ICANN, [8] their contract with the US Department of Commerce and the control of the root file of names and numbers, in addition to coordination structures such as the IETF and the group of regional registers of numbers (LACNIC among others)”.
 
Other key themes include: “the rights of access to the net and its neutrality at the end user edge of the network. The protection of rights related to content and applications, especially the right to privacy and freedom of expression on the net. Conflicts or differences between national legislation and policies and the universality of the net: this involves commercial, tax and exchange issues; security, jurisdiction in the case of litigation, etc.”
 
A draft of the document of agreements of NetMundial, leaked by Wikileaks https://wikileaks.org/metmundial-outcome, indicates a central commitment to the multistakeholder model in all governance bodies, although there is also strong emphasis on transparent processes and guarantees for the equitable participation of all stakeholders.
 
The proposals emerging from NetMundial will move to other forums, in particular to the next UN General Assembly in September. Meanwhile, in June there will be another high level meeting organized by the International Telecommunications Union – ITU – in the framework of WSIS+10.
 
For those who defend democracy and the vision of the Internet as an open space and part of the commons, it is urgent to instigate a widespread and in depth public debate concerning these issues, at both the national and international levels, with a view to seeking solutions within a democratic framework, in which the public interest is at the forefront. Otherwise, the powers-that-be will continue to impose their own solutions.
 
Confronted with these concerns, and with growing frustration at the marginalization of voices that are critical of the status quo, in bodies such as the IGF, the Coalition for a Just and Equitable Internet (Just Net Coalition) has recently been set up. Just Net is committed to a Net that furthers human rights and social justice. They propose to work for the reconfiguration of Internet governance to make it authentically democratic.
(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)
 
Sally Burch is a journalist from ALAI.
 
* This article is part of edition No. 494 of ALAI’s (Spanish language) magazine “América Latina en Movimiento”. A special English language digital edition will be available shortly on ALAI’s website http://www.alainet.org/index.phtml.en, under the title: “Internet, power and democracy”. The magazine also includes contributions from: Julian Assange, Robert McChesney, Michael Gurstein, Prabir Purkayastha, Alex Gakuru, Norbert Bollow, Bia Barbosa, Pedro Ekman, Richard Hill.
 
 
[1] These cables have made spying by the US National Security Agency (NSA) much easier, since by intervening barely 190 data centres, they can monitor almost all the world’s information flows, on Internet, phone lines, etc.
[2] A recent enquiry in the Trade Committee of the US Senate on the business practices of the nine largest data aggregators found that these companies collect data ranging from the most anodyne to the highly sensitive (such as health records). With them, they generate user profiles that they sell with little concern to know how they will be used. At least one company recognized that they define categories of people, such as one they call Oldies but Goodies, described as “gullible” people who want to believe their luck will change. See http://www.alainet.org/active/72608.
[5] List of remote hubs: http://bit.ly/1dYRP1mDocuments submitted: http://content.netmundial.br/docs/contribs
[8] ICANN: Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. http://www.icann.org.

 

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