By Bevil Wooding
“…we’re now living in a world where both corporations and governments have us all under pretty much constant surveillance.” -Bruce Schneier, CNN writer
Technology has made the business of surveillance easier and easier over the years. Today, we live in a world in which our offline and online actions can be captured, stored, cross-referenced, analyzed and shared with relative ease.
For years, Government and corporations have made use of technology to feed their need for data for decision making, competitive advantage and security. For its part, society has generally, and somewhat blindly, held an implicit trust in governments and corporations to collect and manage data responsibly. That trust has called into question recently by recent revelations of widespread, US government sanctioned surveillance, and the vulnerability of ordinary Internet users to the practice.
Former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified NSA surveillance practices have provoked sustained criticism of U.S. authority over cyberspace. Starting with the first disclosures in early June about the collection of phone metadata, the past several months have been marked by a flurry of reports that reveal a massive, global U.S. surveillance apparatus with a capacity to access virtually any Internet-based communications.
That governments spy is no revelation. For countries with authoritarian regimes, the story would hardly make headlines. Citizens in those countries expect to be routinely surveilled. Not so in countries that promote democracy and extol the value of freedom of expression and the right to privacy. This is partly why the shock over the scale and reach of the surveillance is so great, and why the backlash has been so global, and so intense.
There are now growing calls from around the world for the Internet’s technical infrastructure to be less depend on the US and for Internet coordination to be less US-centric and more global.
During a meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay in early October, the world’s leading organizations on Internet policy, governance, and architecture expressed “strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance.”
In a strongly worded statement posted onto the Internet leaders from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the African Network Information Center (AFRINIC), the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), Internet Society, Latin America and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC), Latin and other organizations made it clear that policies and practices such as the U.S. government’s Prism program that tracks Internet communications worldwide, are harmful to an open web.
They called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, “towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.”
Their statement is a reminder of the importance of trust in the institutions and processes that govern the Internet. It is also a reminder of how easily trust can be broken, and how difficult it is to repair.
The U.S. has certainly disgraced itself, and lost considerable moral authority on issues such as online privacy and freedom of speech. However, some of the states doing the loudest cheering over the U.S.’ weakened global position are authoritarian states, keen to exert greater influence over Internet policy and practice, for their own ends. So the quest continues for a champion that can credibly lead the process and repair the damaged trust and confidence.
One thing is clear, Internet governance is at a crossroads. The debate over the implications for governments, corporations and civil society are far from over. But at least it will be fuelled by new global attention on the technical and policy underpinnings of the Internet. Already, an interesting outcome of the controversy is that more countries, businesses and even ordinary Internet users, are now paying greater attention to the issue of Internet Governance.
The role of Internet infrastructure and the value of participating in the development of Internet governance policy are now front-burner issues for countries serious about safeguarding their sovereignty and their citizens’ rights to privacy. Not surprisingly, concerns surrounding surveillance, Internet infrastructure, privacy, and human rights were have centre-stage at the UN’s 2013 Internet Governance Forum in Bali, Indonesia. These concerns will continue to occupy global attention for some time to come.
It is most unlikely that Snowden anticipated this global fallout from his expose. What is likely, however, is that those countries paying attention can benefit tremendously by building out domestic Internet infrastructure, participating in the development of global Internet policy and investing in the development of local human resource capacity to safeguard their interests, online and offline. The future of the Internet depends on nothing less.
Bevil Wooding is an Internet Strategist with the US-based Internet research non-profit organization, Packet Clearing House. He is also Chief Knowledge Officer of Congress WBN (www.congresswbn.org), a values-based, international charity. Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.