The Internet Against the World

Last December, the United Nations-sponsored World Conference on International Telecommunications accomplished… well, not a ton. Disagreement abounded, as Western democracies (the U.S., Australia, Europe and the like) aligned against predictable foes (China, Russia, several Arab states) to ensure that the proceedings ended at loggerheads.

Despite the December stalemate, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union hasn’t given up. In mid-May, representatives from around the world met in Geneva to take another crack at finding common ground.

In this TechNewsWorld podcast, we chat with Eli Dourado, a research fellow with the Mercatus Center’s Technology Policy Program at George Mason University and cofounder of the website Dourado, who has written for Foreign Policy, Wired and Ars Technica, among others, was in Geneva to keep tabs on the proceedings, formally dubbed the “World Telecommunications/ICT Policy Forum.”

Dourado joined us to talk about what has changed since Dubai, why censorship-happy governments care about UN approval, and what role recent stories — like, say, gratuitous cyberespionage conducted by China — have on the debate.

Download the podcast (18:02) or use the player:

Here are some excerpts from the podcast:

TechNewsWorld: I actually recorded a podcast in the wake of the ITU conference that was held in Dubai last December, and it seemed like the takeaway from that was that while there was consensus among certain countries and certain blocs of countries — and these were drawn up along rather predictable lines — there wasn’t a lot that could be called international consensus. I’m curious if the same sort of divisions played out in Geneva, and what your main takeaways were, especially considering past attempts to talk about this.

Eli Dourado: I was at that conference in Dubai as well … that conference was called the “WCIT,” the World Conference in International Telecommunications — so some people have talked about the “post-WCIT era.” The ITU has always been a place where they’ve really tried to have consensus, and of course at the WCIT there wasn’t consensus; there was a forced vote.

So people wanted to see what the new environment looked like, what is the future of these conversations going to be like at the ITU, given what happened in Dubai: that there was a vote and some countries decided not to sign the treaty. So that was definitely something on our minds — how is this going to proceed going forward?

TNW: Was the future that you were looking forward to any different than the past?

Dourado: I think what ended up happening was that the hard line that the liberal democracies took in Dubai kind of paid off — that other countries were kind of like, “OK, just because we’re more numerous doesn’t mean that we can push them around and just force our agenda through. They just won’t agree to it and then we’re stuck.” So I think there was a much stronger effort to get along.

And that’s kind of what ended up happening in Geneva a couple weeks ago, is basically there was a lot of agreement on the opinions that emerged from the preparatory process, everyone sort of played nice and stuck to the existing pacts and didn’t push too hard for big changes.

TNW: You talk about some countries perhaps relinquishing on pushing their agenda through. I’m curious if the countries that met resistance in Dubai — such as Russia and China and some of the Arab states that were pushing for a lot of government autonomy — do they need any sort of international consensus to impose the rules they want? It seems like it would be legitimizing for them if they were given UN approval to regulate the Internet in whatever way they wanted. But what’s the motivation for them, what’s the real necessity, to have a UN-sanctioned authority to do the things it seems like they’re already doing now?

Dourado: That’s a really insightful question, I think. Actually, the first line of the ITU constitution emphasizes that states are totally sovereign. So member states have complete sovereignty to do whatever they want to do in their own territory. Which means they can censor the Internet; there’s nothing in the ITU that says you cannot do whatever you want on the Internet in your own country.

So what I think is, we’re really operating at the level of international norms. We’re trying to say, “Well, this is what well-behaved, good countries do.” And we’re trying to establish that and not give countries cover to push what they want to do on their own citizens by saying, “Well, this is what everybody does,” or “This is how it’s done.” So if you think about Russia, for instance — Russia is nominally a democracy, it has some sort of elections and so on. So it’s responsible a little bit to what the public expects. And if you can get the public to think, “This is normal, this is how it’s done in every country,” then the government can sort of get away with more censorship and more monitoring.

TechNewsWorld: Since the Dubai conference there has been a lot of really interesting stuff that has transpired on the international Internet front, and especially when you talk about cybersecurity. There was, of course, the U.S. security firm Mandiant, [which] issued their report in February about Chinese military hacking. This spread like wildfire and it prompted an official denial from China, and they said that they, in fact, were the victims of U.S. hacking.

And then there was also what was reported to be the biggest-ever bank theft, a (US)$45 million heist that seemed to have been carried out 99 percent thanks to hacking and cyberbreaches. I’m curious if these current events seeped into the discussion and if there is enough flexibility and enough fluidity with the United Nations and ITU to take into account recent events and kind of what’s on people’s minds …

Dourado: I think generally what happens at these events is the discussion is pretty high-level. Both in the strategy that countries are adopting and in what they can accomplish at the ITU — it is pretty high-level. The ITU has zero day-to-day control over the Internet right now, and I think one reason that countries want the ITU to be involved is that they are comfortable working with the ITU, so they want to have the ITU be a place where they can go to raise their problems. But nobody is talking about anything specific, like hacking or specific hacking events. They’ll talk about security in general terms, and that there should be an ITU treaty that says what the responsibilities are with respect to security, but it’s all very high-level and not specific at all.

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author ofThe Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out hisECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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