Should developing nations fear or embrace the internet? This is a question that should be responded to in the affirmative on the surface. After all, how would our lives be without email, websites, facebook, twitter and linkedin, among others? In fact, one wonders how the urban, elite, white collar society (office workers, researchers, the corporate world) lived without the internet only a couple of years ago. Undoubtedly the internet along with other information society technologies – and mobile telephony stands out – has added tonnes of value to modern life.
Precisely because we are hooked and even addicted to the internet in the globalised world is the more reason why we should be wary of its downsides while leveraging on its many undeniable positives. While issues such as digital divide, crime and pornography have been identified as cyberspace challenges, governance remains on the fringes of the pros and cons of the internet.
As perceptive communications critics have pointed out, control and management of the internet from a single government, the US, is a cause for concern. The addresses that all internet users – corporate and individual – use are assigned by the Internet Corporations for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organisation established by the US government. This means that all email addresses, websites, portals and servers are, as communications scholar Dan Schiller puts it, “supervised by the US by the US.”
Even if we held the view that the US government is responsible enough not to abuse the special position of being the unilateral internet governance agency, this situation is inherently slanted for a resource that is used by over 2 billion so-called netizens. This is indeed what communications scholars refer to as hegemony – another word for domination. For, it’s not too much of a stretch to argue that since the US singly provides overall management of the internet, it has the potential to rule over the 2 billion-plus people who live and work through internet.
Such unfettered unilateral access to global data should have everybody worried, more so governments and large non US corporates. What if, for example, some elements in the US government decided to mine data on countries, organisations and individuals from the internet to further the political, economic or social ends of Uncle Sam? There is no end to all manner of speculation as to the potential abuse of this power by the US, particularly at a time when the world’s single superpower is struggling remain afloat, economically.
The US government would be the first to strenuously deny the possibility of someone intruding into confidential content and accessing the codes that create domain names. Fair enough. However, what can stop Wikileaks-like hucksters from doing just such a thing? After all the ‘root servers’ that receive and redirect internet content is managed by human beings and as we know, human nature is prone to foibles. As with Wikileaks, the initial source was a disgruntled US civil servant with access to the diplomatic cables that have supremely embarrassed governments across the world and changed the face of diplomacy.
For instance, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have said that "on their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does; we stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas." This is another way of saying that the US may use its internet prowess to influence political discourse and even actively advocate change in some parts of the world. Against this statement, consider that the US has been promoting youth movements specifically tapping internet strategies. Recall the spurt between the Kenyan government and former US ambassador Michael Rannenberger early this year? To what extent are these movements based on covert information on governments and societies?
Just such worries led to lobbying particularly by developing nations for the establishment of a supranational body to oversee internet management during the World Society for the Information Society in Tunis in 2005. However, Washington managed to scuttle this move and instead drove discussions towards establishment of a fairly tame UN agency, the Switzerland-based Internet Governance Forum (UN-IGF).
IGF – which coincidentally held one of its talk shops in Nairobi in September - is relevant only in so far as discussion of issues unrelated to internet registration is concerned. IGF is more interested in cyber crime, broadband availability, new technologies and legal and regulatory issues at regional and country levels. Where the hot button issue of management of the internet numbers and names resources is concerned, the US can’t budge, won’t budge and IGF will follow cue without question. However, in an ideal situation, IGF or UNESCO would be the best organisational home for the assignment of addresses to the world’s netizens – individual and corporate. Decision making on key policy and operational issues on the internet would be representational, with each country represented in one way or another. Indeed, countries such as our own Kenya, India, China and Egypt have made just such proposals to the US Commerce Department, which interestingly has leverage over ICANN. The current system where ICANN board of directors are appointed is considered opaque and therefore open to the abuses we have alluded to above.
While the creation of IGF and ICANN affiliates at the regional and country levels is good for facilitating and addressing local issues, it is also a potential subterfuge from focusing on the heart of internet management from the top.
The prevailing debate on internet management and the unequal information flows as well as global security issues is at the heart of the intersection between politics and information technology today. As to whether the push for a UN-style entity to manage this resource will succeed remains to be seen. The US will not willingly agree to loosen its grip over this resource. So much for democracy.
By Bob Wekesa.
The writer firstname.lastname@example.org is studying International Communication at the Communication University of China.