Issue 100: Internet Governance

Posted on 8 minute read

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just over a year old, and shortly after the war started there were calls to cut Russia off from the internet as a punitive action. (See Can the Internet Sanction a Country? Should It?, Thursday Threads issue 89.) A year later now, that discussion has died down. Today’s Thursday Threads issue recalls that discussion and other examples of attempts to exert control over the internet.

This week we look at internet governance: how it got to be the way it is, why it is unique, and threats (both historic and current) to how it operates.

Also on DLTJ in the past week:

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What is the internet?

You might think of “the internet” as one big thing, but in reality it is many smaller things hooked together by common agreement. The internet connection at my house comes from an Internet Service Provider (ISP). My ISP connects to one or more (likely many more than one) other ISPs and transit providers. Through those interconnections, a message I’m typing here will be sent to a computer across town, across the country, and across the world.
Sanctioning Governments on the Internet , me, 10-Mar-2022

Yes, I’m quoting myself here. That DLTJ article was prompted by a whitepaper from Packet Clearing House in response to a request from the Ukraine government to cut off Russia from the internet. As the quote above points out, the article goes on to talk about how the multi-stakeholder nature of the internet makes it difficult to exert much of any central control over its operation. And that is probably a good thing. If you didn’t read this article a year ago, I hope you’ll go back and read it now.

Proposal to redesign multi-stakeholder governance out of the internet’s core

Huawei is proposing a fundamental internet redesign, which it calls “New IP,” designed to build “intrinsic security” into the web. Intrinsic security means that individuals must register to use the internet, and authorities can shut off an individual user’s internet access at any time. In short, Huawei is looking to integrate China’s “social credit,” surveillance, and censorship regimes into the internet’s architecture. The New IP proposal itself rests on a flawed technical foundation that threatens to fragment the internet into a mess of less interoperable, less stable, and even less secure networks. To avoid scrutiny of New IP’s shortcomings, Huawei has circumvented international standards bodies where experts might challenge the technical shortcomings of the proposal. Instead, Huawei has worked through the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU), where Beijing holds more political sway.
China’s Dystopian “New IP” Plan Shows Need for Renewed US Commitment to Internet Governance , Just Security, 13-Apr-2021

Huawei’s proposed “New IP” internet lacks transparency and inclusivity as well as introduces centralized control and potential abuse. The multi-stakeholder governance structure of the internet is one if its most important and unique aspects. Doing away with that should not be taken lightly.

If you want a way-out-there idea, if we centralized control of the internet with the governments we have on earth now, it becomes all that much harder to invite an independent Martian colony or extra-terrestrial culture to join the network; not so with the current multi-stakeholder governance.

See…told you it was a way-out-there idea.

DNS, the internet’s directory service, is key

The new proposal specifies that "member states have the right to manage all naming, numbering, addressing and identification resources used for international telecommunications/ICT services within their territories." This seems to be a challenge to the authority of ICANN and IANA, the quasi-private organizations that currently oversee the allocation of domain names and IP addresses. The proposal would also add a new section on security issues. It specifies that the world&apoos;s governments should "undertake appropriate measures" to protect the "physical and operational security of networks; denial of service attacks; countering unsolicited electronic communication (e.g Spam); and protection of information and personal data (e.g. phishing)."
Authoritarian regimes push for larger ITU role in DNS system , Ars Technica, 8-Dec-2012

ICANN and IANA are parts of the multi-stakeholder governance structure. While imperfect, they do work towards broad consensus with the goal of ensuring the broadest connectivity. That is a laudable goal.

Google’s Eric Schmidt warns of governance fragmentation

In a question-and-answer session at Mobile World Congress 2012 on Tuesday, [Google's executive chairman Eric] Schmidt said handing over control of things such as naming and DNS to the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would divide the internet, allowing it to be further broken into pieces regulated in different ways. "That would be a disaster... To some, the openness and interoperability is one of the greatest achievements of mankind in our lifetime. Do not give that up easily. You will regret it. You will hate it, because all of a sudden all that freedom, all that flexibility, you'll find it shipped away for one good reason after another," Schmidt said. "I cannot be more emphatic. Be very, very careful about moves which seem logical, but have the effect of balkanising the internet," he added, urging everyone to strongly resist the moves.
Schmidt: UN treaty a 'disaster' for the internet , ZDNet UK, 29-Feb-2012

One can question Google’s motives, but I interpret this as an honest caution and not a bid for an internet giant to consolidate control.

India cuts off internet access

Indian authorities severed mobile internet access and text messaging for a second day Sunday across Punjab, a state of about 27 million people, as officials sought to capture a Sikh separatist and braced for potential unrest. The statewide ban — which crippled most smartphone services except for voice calls and some SMS text messages — marked one of the broadest shutdowns in recent years in India, a country that has increasingly deployed the law enforcement tactic, which digital rights activists call draconian and ineffective.
Indian officials cut internet for 27 million people amid search for fugitive , Washington Post, 19-Mar-2023

This is a very recent example of a country trying to cut itself off from the internet. In this case, in a country where most people get to the internet via mobile networks, it is relatively easy to do since there are few chokepoints.

Last year three dozen countries impose some kind of network restrictions

More countries shut down the internet in 2022 than ever before, according to a new report by digital rights researchers, as the threat of “digital authoritarianism” races up the agenda of many governments worldwide. Authorities in 35 countries instituted internet shutdowns at least 187 times, according to the New York-based digital rights watchdog Access Now. Nearly half of these shutdowns occurred in India, and if that nation is excluded, 2022 saw the most number of shutdowns globally since the group began monitoring disruptions in 2016. Access Now relied on technical assessments as well as news articles and personal accounts to compile its report, which spans complete blackouts, suspensions of specific phone networks or social media apps, and the slowing down of internet speeds.
Governments shut down the internet more often than ever, report says , Washington Post, 28-Feb-2023

It is not just India—and interference ranges from complete shutdowns to impacting specific apps. Doing something like this in the U.S. is harder because of the diversity of internet connectivity options.

But it doesn’t mean the U.S. government didn’t try (and won’t try again). Read on…

The U.S. Congress once thought an “internet kill switch” was a good idea has this article about proposed legislation to "direct the Department of Homeland Security to undertake a study on emergency communications" (the bill's title). The text of the legislation is not available at this time, but when a similar topic was debated in the last congressional session, the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs -- chaired by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman with Senator Susan M. Collins as ranking minority member -- issued a four-page Myth-v-Reality document. That bill also seemed to do more than simply request a study -- it actually established in the Executive Office of the President an Office of Cyberspace Policy. The bill died before coming up for a vote in the final days of the session. At the time, the American Library Association joined with dozens of other groups to send a letter to the committee expression concerns with that version.
Internet ‘Kill Switch’ Legislation Back in Play , DLTJ Thursday Threads, 3-Feb-2011

Lest you think something like what is happening in India can’t happen in the United States, 12 years ago the U.S. Senate proposed an internet kill switch. That legislation died and—as near as I can tell—hasn’t been proposed again at this scale. The recent discussions of banning an app—TikTok—come really close, though. (And instead of banning apps, can we do something about the pervasive personal data collection and distribution instead?)

The ball of fur, well, sheds!

A black cat curled up sleeping on a jumbled pink blanket. The pink of the blanket shows a large amount of fur.