The Internet as we know it is dead.


The Internet as we know it is dead.

Not long ago, I would have argued the opposite to be true.

The free and open Internet was in what I felt to be a strong position just last month. The open democratic nations of the world had just come off the success of defending the multi-stakeholder model at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) coordinated World Conference on International Communications (WCIT-12). And, as I discussed in a previous post, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of ICANN, the organization at the centre of the Internet governance ecosystem.

These were both signs that the Internet – and in particular the Internet governance ecosystem – was reaching a strong and healthy point. Now we are faced with the fact that the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States, has been systematically monitoring the Internet activity of both its own citizens and those of other nations.

The implications of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program on the Internet governance world can best be explained by revisiting the events at WCIT-12.

WCIT-12 was a landmark meeting in the history of the Internet. A new version of the regulations that govern telecommunications activities globally was proposed and soundly rejected by many of the world’s democratic nations for provisions that would have extended the reach of the ITU over the Internet. This rejection was widely heralded as an endorsement for the current governance model applied to the Internet – the multi-stakeholder model – over a multi-lateral, United Nations model of governance.

I have articulated my reasons for supporting the multi-stakeholder model over a multi-lateral one many times, but my argument boils down to this: no other governance model puts the people and organizations that directly benefit from the Internet’s success in charge of it. The multi-stakeholder model is the only governance model that can support the development of a free and open Internet that has the potential to provide the world with all of the benefits it has to offer. Other models, including the multi-lateral model, are too open-to-influence by issues and actors that exist outside of the Internet ecosystem. Full stop.

WCIT-12 is just one example in a decade-long struggle for control of the Internet between – and, yes, this is an over-simplification but it works – open and transparent democratic nations and more authoritarian nations.

One of the main concerns at WCIT-12 – and voiced by the U.S. – was that new regulations could enable a system where (as I blogged at the time) “countries which do not have a strong commitment to human rights and democracy” would be able to put much of the global Internet traffic under significant surveillance.

Fast forward eight months, and we’re dealing with the news about the PRISM surveillance program. The irony of the fact that the country that led the charge against the new regulations for fear that it would give nations the authority to monitor Internet activity (among other reasons) is, of course, palpable.

Beyond the irony, the implications of the PRISM program run deep. The fact is the United States government has unilaterally invalidated the argument that the Internet must remain free and open for the good of the global community. While the U.S. has been doing its best to ensure nations are unable to monitor Internet activity, it has been working with the private sector in an effort to gather and monitor targeted Internet activity.

At the very least, this is a nail in the coffin of the multi-stakeholder model. They have effectively paved the way for the next attack on the multi-stakeholder model. The result?

Eventually a Balkanized Internet. An Internet that no longer provides access to global markets for business in the developing world. A global Internet that excludes people fighting authoritative regimes for basic human rights. An Internet that is no longer the incredible driver of positive economic and social change.

This is the first blog in a series of three I will be posting on this subject. In my next post, I will be discussing the apparent apathy among the citizens of open and democratic nations (Canada included) with regard to online surveillance.

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  • James

    The day when I cannot download my Linux ISOs over bittorrent will be THE day I lose faith in structured government.

  • Michael

    The whole point of Big Brother in ’1984′ was that the population knew they were being monitored & so self-censored. The opposite is true with the NSA. They relied on people not knowing they were giving themselves away by going online. The USA likes a free & open internet because it gave people the illusion of anonymity.

  • Justin

    I really hope this outlook can change based on the efforts of those exposing these systems to the general public both domestically and worldwide. With the right amount of pressure, and economic incentive, the nails that have been hammered in may one day be removed. This isn’t just a US problem, really it is a world problem, the US just happened to be the first nation state to leverage its technology in way that was centred around waging war, and this is the root of the problem. If not the US then who would have been the first: Russia? China? As long as we as a world community are continuously at odds with one another, we will face these problems not just in the physical realm, but the digital as well. It is up to the citizens of the world to maintain hope and send a message to our governments worldwide that the continuous war mongering, and divisive behavior will no longer be tolerated from any regime in any form. We as citizens in societies who elect our politicians and speak with our votes and wallets can rally and make the right choices that support this message. If anything the internet can be used to spread and disseminate this message of unity peace and the free flow of information between all countries and peoples’ worldwide.

  • Jefsey

    I am afraid you took an utopia for reality. Let not confuse it now with a dystopia. The internet is no more than the internet, and no less either. It is an unperfect packet switch passive data transport tool open to everyone, including you, me and the NSA.

    What the US do is to exercise their intelligence on data. What we can deduce from PRISM is that their intellition (intelligence on information) technology is far from perfect since they still need to tape the transport lines and the receiving ends. Otherwise they would infer private information from public one, as every brain is entitled to do it, including articial brains, and you would know nothing about it, because this is what everyone does, otherwise you would not express opinions on this blog. NSA should read Raymond Kurzweil better. In the meanwhile why would PRISM be shocking and Google not?.

    You know what? What truly shocks me is that we may sell domain names to citizens instead of giving them for free. I am ok for CIRA.CA professional/commercial names to be subject to a commercial tax, but why to charge like names? Only slaves are sold … This is not the internet we intended and still plan.