More than 1,500 representatives of governments, civil societies and others met in Bali earlier this month to discuss Internet governance in an atmosphere of anxiety and outrage kicked up by the storm of revelations since June by the fugitive Edward Snowden over US government spying.
However, there is anxiety as well between governments over the conference, the United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum. The United States, the UK and Canada are committed to keeping the Internet open, accessible and in effect borderless, while others including Russia and China have sought to exercise government power to limit what Internet users can see. The western countries are worried that those seeking to limit Internet freedom could use Snowden’s revelations to attempt to place limits.
With particularly the Russians and Chinese holding prominent positions in the United Nations, there are thus concerns that giving the international body hegemony over the medium could allow them to exercise their powers within the UN to carry out their aims.
In any case, the future of the vast electronic network could be shaped by global reaction to the kinds of surveillance that Snowden has revealed in disclosures that continue to badly embarrass the United States government, according to participants at the conference, which was established in 2006 by the United Nations to bring together stakeholders on issues of governance of the medium.
Commenting that the damage done by unauthorized surveillance was much larger than was being acknowledged, one speaker said that “a cancer scare does not get treated with an aspirin,” according to a release put out by the forum.
Snowden, a former employee of the US National Security Agency, remains in Moscow, to which he fled from Hong Kong after disclosures of super-secret spy operations on the part of the NSA. He has since expanded those revelations to a series of sensational exposés that the NSA had obtained the i\Internet addresses of 35 world leaders and apparently spied on the heads of government in Germany, France and Mexico, among others. US President Barack Obama was forced to apologize personally by telephone to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Issues surrounding the Internet at the forum ran well beyond the spying charges, however. With more than two billion users, the Internet has become a vast, unwieldy and unruly medium that remains a vital communications tool at the same time it hosts hustlers, con men, potential rapists and murderers. In a technical sense, according to the Internet Society, “it means an Internet that has no idea what’s being transported on it – no matter if it’s a giant database of files or a small video of your family vacation you might want to post on YouTube. Simply put, it’s a neutral architecture that’s open to every conceivable type of application that could be developed around the world.”
For this particular conference, the issue of surveillance was called the “the elephant in the room”, raising profound questions over whether any section of the medium can be trusted to remain confidential. US officials are particularly under fire.
Scott Busby, the US State Department representative at the conference, said America recognizes the many concerns on the issue of surveillance and “welcomes a discussion about privacy and security, and we are right now intensively having that discussion,” adding that the issue of global surveillance should “take into account the views and practices of everyone around the world.”
Busby said that the US “does not use intelligence collection for the purpose of repressing the citizens of any country for any reason, including their political, religious, or other beliefs,” adding that “individuals should be protected from arbitrary or unlawful state interference.” A red-faced US government is currently rethinking the whole issue of spying on friendly governments, officials in Washington, DC said.
Google and Microsoft have been battered as well by charges that they had collaborated in the government’s spying. The two Internet giants announced in August that they would sue the US in a bid to win the right to reveal more about official requests for information on Internet subscribers. The two have denied the allegations. Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s global head of free expression and international relations, told the conference that “if our users don’t trust us, they won’t use our products, and they’ll go somewhere else.” Part of maintaining that trust, he said, is “not provide direct access for any government to our data, our servers, our infrastructure”, and not to accept “large, blanketlike government requests for user data.”
LaJeunesse urged participants to hold all governments accountable to the highest standards, including those “where journalists are beaten, bloggers are imprisoned and activists are killed.”
“Trust among governments and in the major ICT and Telecom companies is completely broken” as a result of unauthorized data and metadata collection, said Joana Varon of the Center for Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro, representing civil society organizations, adding that is time to move forward with solutions. Varon cited the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet in Brazil as “a model in terms of both content and process” that could provide a useful guide in an international scenario.
Brazilian Ambassador Benedicto Fonseca Filho said he would “align” his statement with Varon’s, reiterating Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s call to the international community to launch a process that would achieve principles and norms to guide use and operation. The proposed Summit meeting in Brazil next year aims to accelerate this process while maintaining a multistakeholder approach, he said.
Additional comments included the notion that developing principles to deal with surveillance is “necessary but not sufficient,” and that what is needed is “due process and oversight.”
“Some individuals countries are carrying out large-scale surveillance over other countries,” said Ren Yishen of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, calling this “an infringement of sovereignty and privacy that also poses a threat to the safe operation of the Internet.” Ren obviously didn’t touch on his own government’s huge surveillance and hacking apparatus.
“New cybersecurity threats and revelations of widespread Internet surveillance are only two of emerging issues that the multistakeholder community must address,” said Elia Armstrong of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, underlining the need for these multistakeholder deliberations to also feed into the broader processes for global agenda for sustainable development post-2015.