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<nettime> LMD: Masters of the Internet (Dan Schiller)
nettime's avid reader on Sun, 10 Feb 2013 14:01:44 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> LMD: Masters of the Internet (Dan Schiller)

New challenge to US hegemony
Masters of the Internet

The US calls loudly for "Internet freedom", but it is Google, Facebook, 
Microsoft, Apple and Amazon that have built up the dotcom services used 
by people all over the world. Is that now about to change?

by Dan Schiller

The geopolitics of the Internet broke open during the first half of 
December at an international conference in Dubai convened by the 
International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN affiliate agency with 
193 national members. At these meetings, states (thronged by corporate 
advisors) forge agreements to enable international communications via 
cables and satellites. These gatherings, however boring and 
bureaucratic, are crucial because of the enormous importance of networks 
in the operation of the transnational political economy.

The December 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications 
(WCIT) in Dubai produced a major controversy: should ITU members vest 
the agency with oversight responsibilities for the Internet, 
responsibilities comparable to those it has exercised for decades for 
other forms of international communication?

The United States said no, and the US position won out: the new ITU 
treaty document did not grant the agency a formal role in what has come 
to be called "global Internet governance". However, a majority of 
countries voted to attach a resolution "invit[ing] member states to 
elaborate on their respective position on international Internet-related 
technical, development and public policy issues within the mandate of 
the ITU at various ITU fora." Objecting to "even symbolic global 
oversight", as a New York Times writer put it (1), the US refused to 
sign the treaty and walked away. So did France, Germany, Japan, India, 
Kenya, Colombia, Canada, Britain and other nations. However, more than 
two-thirds of the attending countries -- 89 all told -- endorsed the 
document. (And some of the nations that did not sign may accept the 
treaty later.)

To understand what is at stake we need to make our way through the 
rhetorical smog. For months prior to the WCIT, the Euro-American press 
trumpeted warnings that this was to be an epochal clash between 
upholders of an open Internet and would-be government usurpers, led by 
authoritarian states like Russia, Iran and China. The terms of reference 
were set so rigidly that one European telecom company executive called 
it a campaign of "propaganda warfare" (2).

Freedom of expression is no trifling issue. No matter where we live, 
there is reason for worry that the Internet's relative openness is being 
usurped, corroded or canalised. This does not necessarily imply armies 
of state censors or "great firewalls". The US National Security Agency, 
for example, sifts wholesale through electronic transmissions transiting 
satellite and cable networks, through its extensive "listening posts" 
and its gigantic new data centre at Bluffdale Utah (3); and the US 
government has gone after a true proponent of freedom of expression -- 
WikiLeaks -- in deadly earnest. US Internet companies such as Facebook 
and Google have transformed the Web into a "surveillance engine" to 
vacuum up commercially profitable data about users? behaviour.
Interests concealed

Even during the 1970s, the rhetoric of ?free flow of information? had 
long functioned as a central tenet of US foreign policy. During the era 
of decolonisation and cold war the doctrine purported to be a shining 
beacon, lighting the world's way to emancipation from imperialism and 
state repression. Today it continues to paint deep-seated economic and 
strategic interests in an appealing language of universal human rights. 
"Internet freedom", "freedom to connect", "net freedom" -- terms 
circulated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Google executives 
together in the run-up to the WCIT -- are today's version of the 
longstanding "free flow" precept. But just as before, "Internet freedom" 
is a red herring. Calculatingly manipulative, it tells us to entrust a 
fundamental human right to a pair of powerfully self-interested social 
actors: corporations and states.

The deliberations at the WCIT were multifaceted, and encompassed 
crosscutting issues. One was the terms of trade between Internet 
services like Google and the companies that transport their voluminous 
data streams -- network operators and ISPs like Verizon, Deutsche Telekom 
or Free. This business fight harbours implications for a more general 
and important policy issue: who should pay for the continual 
modernisations of network infrastructure on which recurrent 
augmentations and enhancements of Internet service depend. Xavier Niel's 
bold attack on Google's French revenues, when he implemented an 
ad-blocker as his Free network's default setting, placed this issue in 
bold relief before the public. But the terms of trade in the global 
Internet industry are also important because any general edict that 
content providers must pay network operators -- Niel's goal, similar to 
that of other telecom companies -- would carry grave consequences for the 
Net Neutrality policies which have been so vital for Internet users.

Until now, this power has been wielded disproportionately by the US (4). 
During the 1990s, when the web-centric Internet exploded onto the world 
stage, the US made intense efforts to institutionalise its management 
role. Domain names led by dotcom, and numerical web addresses and 
network identifiers, need to be unique for the system to operate; and 
the ability to assign them in turn establishes a point from which 
institutional power may be projected over the extraterritorial Internet. 
Management of these critical Internet resources is exercised by a US 
agency, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), under contract 
to the US Department of Commerce. The IANA operates ostensibly as a unit 
of a separate, and seemingly more accountable, California-based 
non-profit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and 
Numbers (ICANN). Technical standards for the Internet are developed by 
the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Architecture 
Board (IAB) within another non-profit corporation, the Internet Society. 
The composition and funding of these organisations render them more 
responsive to US preferences than to users? demands (5).

The leading global commercial Internet sites are not operated by Chinese 
or Russian, let alone by Kenyan or Mexican capital. As everyone knows, 
it is Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon that have built up 
the dotcom services used by people all over the world. And a widening 
array of commodification projects and corporate commodity chains 
continues to be predicated on cross-border flows of Internet data; 
today?s ongoing transition to "cloud computing" services will further 
widen this dependence. The Internet's unbalanced control structure 
provides an essential basis for US corporate and military supremacy in 
cyberspace. While the US government exercises an outsized role, other 
states possess scant opportunity -- individually or collectively -- to 
regulate the system. By instituting various technical and legal 
measures, of course, they may exercise sovereignty over their domestic 
Internets; but even when they stake out these merely national 
jurisdictions, they are assailed by US policymakers. Milton Mueller 
aptly captures this asymmetry in observing that, as it is presently 
constituted, the Internet embodies a US policy of "unilateral globalism" 

Property logic

Exercising this management function has permitted the US to instil 
property-logic at the heart of Internet system development -- through 
ICANN. Although it is a complex, semi-autonomous institution, ICANN's 
power over the Domain Name System was deployed to confer 
extraterritorial advantages on corporate trademark owners and other 
property interests -- over the protests of non-commercial organisations 
which, despite being represented within ICANN, found themselves unable 
to prevail over Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and other big companies. And 
ICANN used private contract law to bind to its rules the far-flung 
organisations which administer generic and country code top-level 
domains worldwide. National providers of various Internet applications 
control their domestic markets in a number of countries, including 
Russia, China and the Republic of Korea. Yet the transnational Internet 
services -- the most profitable and strategic points in this 
extraterritorial system -- are citadels built by US capital and state power.

Nearly from the outset, other nations have resisted their subordinate 
status. As signs that the US was not about to relinquish its control 
grew, so did opposition. It helped prompt a series of high-profile 
meetings -- the World Summit on the Information Society, organised by the 
ITU and held in Geneva and Tunis between 2003 and 2005.

This World Summit was an explicit precursor of the 2012 clash in Dubai, 
in that it established at least a small beachhead for states (beside 
that of the US) in global Internet governance. ICANN's "Government 
Advisory Committee", charged with providing input to the organisation's 
"multi-stakeholder" process, grants governments the same formal status 
as corporations and civil society groups. Many states actually might 
have been content with this curious arrangement, but for one glaring 
fact. For all the crowing about bottom-up diversity and 
multi-stakeholderism, global Internet governance was not an egalitarian, 
or even a pluralist, enterprise. It was patent that stakeholder number 
one was the US Executive Branch.

The demise of the unipolar moment, followed by the plunge into what has 
become a long world depression, greatly accentuated and widened 
interstate conflict over the political economy of cyberspace. Other 
governments continued to look for a point of leverage, from which they 
could attempt to open up global Internet coordination and management. In 
2010-11 they even appealed directly to the US Department of Commerce, 
when it began a proceeding to evaluate its contract renewal with IANA 
for the management of Internet addresses. Quite extraordinarily, several 
countries and one international organisation -- the ITU -- submitted 
formal comments. The government of Kenya proposed a "transition" away 
from management of the IANA functions by the US Department of Commerce, 
and toward a multilateral government-centred regime. US control should 
be modified by globalising the arrangements for the entire institutional 
superstructure that had been built up around Internet names and 
addresses. India, Mexico, Egypt and China made strikingly similar 

The US responded by ratcheting up the rhetoric of "Internet freedom" as 
an attempt to repel the escalating threat to its management control. No 
doubt it has intensified its bilateral lobbying to induce some of the 
dissenting states to come back into the fold. The effects became evident 
at the WCIT, when India and Kenya joined the US in rejecting the treaty.

What will happen now? It's certain that US government agencies and 
leading units of Internet capital such as Google will continue to 
project all the power at their disposal to strengthen the US-centric 
Internet, and to discredit its opponents. The political challenge to the 
US's "global unilateralism", however, now has broken into the open -- 
where it is certain to remain. A Wall Street Journal editorialist did 
not hesitate to call Dubai "America's first big digital defeat" (7).

February 2013

Original text in English
More by Dan Schiller

(1) Eric Pfanner, "Message, if murky, from U.S. to world", The New York 
Times, 15 December 2012.

(2) Rachel Sanderson and Daniel Thomas, ?US under fire after telecoms 
treaty talks fail?, Financial Times, London, 17 December 2012.

(3) James Bamford, "The NSA is Building the Country's Biggest Spy 
Center", Wired, San Francisco, April 2012.

(4) Dwayne Winseck, ?Big New Global Threat to the Internet or Paper 
Tiger? The ITU and Global Internet Regulation?, 10 June 2012; 

(5) Harold Kwalwasser, "Internet Governance", Cyberpower and National 
Security, National Defense University Press-Potomac Press, 
Washington-Dulles, 2009.

(6) Milton L Mueller, Networks and States: the Global Politics of 
Internet Governance, MIT Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts), 2010.

(7) L Gordon Crovitz, "America's first big digital defeat", The Wall 
Street Journal, New York, 17 December 2012.

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