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Keeping a Free and Open Internet Starts at the Root
Dynamics at the Internet’s core erode stakeholder legitimacy and aid Sino-Russian efforts for multilateral control.
At the beginning of what became a prolonged process for privatization, the U.S. Government established a framework of fundamental guiding principles for governance of the Internet’s root. These principles were designed to work to preserve a free and open nature for a global network that was to be elastic, extensible, and — at more than two decades — enduring. Chief among these working principles were:
private sector leadership;
private property respect, namely IP;
diverse stakeholder representation;
competition and consumer choice.
Adherence to these principles may strengthen legitimacy but don’t confer infallibility upon the multistakeholder model of Internet governance and there are many areas needing significant improvements. Borrowing from Winston Churchill, private sector-led multistakeholder Internet governance may well be a poor form of governance — except there is no better alternative. But some would disagree and multistakeholderism has its detractors, particularly among a certain subset of Communist, Left-leaning, and authoritarian nation-states that, having been shown to have some skill at playing the multilateral system for geopolitical gain, are frustrated to discover that governance is trending towards multistakeholderism just as they are arriving to take a seat at the multilateral table.
This means that the longevity of a free and open Internet is heavily dependent on the legitimacy of Free World governance remaining intact. Consider that, every two years the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) convenes a plenipotentiary of its members, all of whom are government representatives of sovereign nation-states. The effective control of the Internet’s root and/or other Internet governance items are always on the agenda and the conclave serves as a sort of biennial focal point for an ongoing campaign — led by authoritarian Russia and Communist China and which includes a growing ecosystem of their allies and client states — that seeks to supplant private sector leadership of Internet governance with multilateral government control and thereby reserving to dubious sovereign states the policy-making prerogatives at the Internet’s root.
Anyone who thinks this seems alarmist might consider brushing up on recent history. The IANA transition — an effort lasting from 2014 to 2017 whereby the US Government removed itself as the historical guarantor of legitimacy for governance at the Internet’s core — was justified by the Obama Administration as necessary, following Edward Snowden’s surveillance disclosures, for U.S. diplomats to maintain support for the status quo from middle states (undecideds who are open to being persuaded) at the ITU plenipotentiary in 2016.
So, on one hand there is an ongoing campaign to subvert control of the Internet’s root by two antagonists, authoritarian Russia and Communist China, who argue that it is illegitimate for the private sector to lead over sovereign nation-state governments. On the other hand, the Free World’s superpower that was the historical guarantor of legitimacy for multistakeholder Internet governance has removed its protective umbrella. Thus, the governance model and its stakeholder participants are left to shoulder the burden of sustaining legitimacy of governance and blunt insurgent attempts to wrest policy-making into the multilateral arena — where “free and open” has a different and diminished meaning than now.
This is a critical lens for any sincere examination of the current dynamics in play at the Internet’s root, where systematic corruption and intimidation are being used by what appears to be a corporate monopolist cartel to capture and hold in thrall the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). This undermines the legitimacy of policy-making at the Internet’s root and — by calling into question the fundamental premise of private sector-led multistakeholder governance — is a clear and present danger to the free and open Internet.
A typical rank-and-file stakeholder participating in DNS-related governance or commerce may be only peripherally aware of the heavy-handed habits of the monopolists that rule the root. But fearfully whispered testimonies — alleging such improprieties as outside counsel retained as henchmen for questionable and highly irregular purposes, of casting defamatory aspersions that interfere with customer and partner relationships, of deceptively and knowingly making false claims of non-existent intellectual property rights, of bad-faith re-purposing of the civil tort for frivolous voyages of discovery, and of threatening potentially existential jeopardy through the weaponization of seemingly benign and supposedly non-discriminatory economic incentives, amongst others — reveal that immense market power is being wielded in a manner that runs counter to the aims of multi-stakeholder governance, competitive markets, and the free flow of information and ideas; in other words, a manner that runs counter to the core principles of the Internet itself.
This sort of behavior is nothing new — indeed, it has become normalized which is why protest is so muted, if there is ever any at all. In the current environment — where fear is a feature, not a bug — publicly-available examples abound, including:
Becky Burr, a current ICANN board member and former Clinton Administration official who was instrumental in privatizing the DNS, described the atmosphere surrounding the early Internet as“hostile.”(beginning at the 10:00 mark and ending at 13:30).
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged“strategicabuse of the antitrust laws”;
A 2009 settlement of a lawsuit involving the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers(ICANN);
Lawsuits against competitors; and
Sending a letter characterized, again, as“hostile” to think tank scholars immediately prior to their Congressional testimony.
The heavy casualties of the current rot at the root include an independent press, free speech, private property rights, open and competitive markets, innovation, along with any modicum of ethics, fairness, and common sense. Such things as these are what formed the cornerstones of liberty and have served as bulwarks safeguarding against tyranny. Many people took for granted that a dial tone would always be there — except when it wasn’t. Similarly, there has only ever been a free and open Internet and, despite its vulnerability, many will assume that it will always be so — right up until the moment that it isn’t. It is unrealistic to hope that authoritarian Russia and Communist China will adhere to original principles in their attempts to force multilateral control of Internet governance or that they will overlook the erosion of legitimacy that is resulting from the mockery being made of private sector leadership. Nor is it reasonable to assume that Leftist middle states such as India and Brazil will be idle observers on the sidelines of this 21st century Great Game tug-of-war.
There is a story in American folklore of a woman who stopped Benjamin Franklin on his way out of the Constitutional Convention and asked what form of government had been selected for the new nation. His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Today, Dr. Franklin might say:
“A free and open Internet, if you can keep it.”