Americanism vs. Globalism! I think it’s safe to say that many Americans don’t care about global trade politics like the controversial TPP deal, even if it hits their jobs. But what about global Internet politics that could disrupt free speech across the web? What if global trade politics and web politics are so corruptibly intertwined? What if China could influence or suppress Internet traffic as far as the US?
In just another month, on 30 September 2016, the United States will give up its direct oversight of ICANN. Now, because TPP was designed to “pull” the Pacific Rim economies further away from China, it’s no longer so remote to imagine a scenario where China is tempted in retaliation to “push” its own authoritarian policy across the Internet through a more-corruptible “multi-stakeholder” ICANN model.
Hi, my name is Jay, and I’m an IBM TRIRIGA information developer at IBM. Last time, I admitted that I “never expected to write a political post”. I guess one time wasn’t enough! This time, extending the logic that TPP favors multinational corporations over sovereign nations, couldn’t Chinese corporations exert the same backroom political control over ICANN, despite “multi-stakeholder” cooperation?
Do you embrace geopolitical ignorance and bliss?
When I say that “many Americans don’t care”, I know the feeling. In the distracting and hypnotizing world of Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and other forms of instant entertainment, it’s so easy to be bored by foreign geopolitical debates that don’t matter or don’t disrupt our addictive shows. It’s so easy to be lazy, to think it only happens in the movies, and to let the media think for us.
But once in a while, when it hits our everyday entertainment, like when US states forced Amazon to charge sales taxes or when Netflix raised its subscription rates, certain debates and disruptions do matter. That’s when Americans do care and can get angry. Not surprisingly, both Amazon and Netflix are US-based multinational corporations that also endorse TPP. Scary how the world works, huh?
Do you rage against the globalist machine?
But let’s take a closer look at ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. As many as ten years ago, geopolitical battle lines were already being drawn between “the United States and the rest of the world” to “dilute American control” in favor of a “bloated, scandal-riddled United Nations”. As the online magazine Slate wrote in “Who Controls the Internet?” (29 November 2005):
The California nonprofit ICANN has directed traffic on the Web since 1998. ICANN oversees the Domain Name System, the database that makes it possible for you to surf to Slate by typing http://www.slate.com rather than a string of hard-to-remember numbers. It also ensures that each address is unique by managing “top-level domain names”—the dot-suffixes like .biz, .com, and .edu, as well as country codes like China’s .cn and Australia’s .au.
ICANN hasn’t been doing a bad job. For one thing, there have been no major outages in its seven years as cyber traffic cop. Nevertheless… a group of countries (most notably Brazil, Cuba, Iran, and Zimbabwe) pressed the United Nations to assume ICANN’s functions, while members of the European Union clamored to dilute American control.
The Web has become just another front in the battle between the United States and the rest of the world… Although the United States government has not meddled in ICANN’s operations yet, our U.N. brethren fear that an America with a unilateral foreign policy will eventually become an America with a unilateral Internet policy. Other countries have every right to be suspicious. If it wanted, the U.S. government could take over ICANN and block Internet traffic to a nation that harbors terrorists. It could access the databases that house domain names and… take down computers serving up anti-American rhetoric or locate state enemies.
But the idea that the United States “controls the Internet”—or could control the Internet—through ICANN is a canard. Sure, the State Department could pull some gnarly pranks, like funneling traffic from Iranian government sites to porn portals, starving French e-commerce, or wiping Al-Jazeera off the face of the Web. Perhaps that’s the equivalent of economic sanctions, but… Most online traffic today exists outside the traditional domain-name system in peer-to-peer file sharing and instant messaging. Even if .com somehow got plowed over, any group who wants to communicate would still be able to communicate…
While no one—not even our allies—trusts the United States to maintain its hands-off policy, the idea of the bloated, scandal-riddled United Nations administering the Net’s core functions wasn’t met with great enthusiasm either… It’s not clear how a U.N.-run ICANN would operate. If its responsibilities rotated to different nations, it’s conceivable that Iran could make arbitrary changes to the DNS servers to cripple traffic to Israel. China could out dissident bloggers who post their work on overseas servers. With an unstable technology infrastructure, Sudan might have trouble keeping DNS up and running…
The most likely scenario is that the United States will cling to its role as the Web’s traffic cop until we no longer need ICANN. As computers become embedded in everything from cell phones to PDAs, cars, clothes, and TVs, these networked devices will rely less on DNS servers and more on other connectivity protocols.
So what happened? What accelerated the timetable? Snowden. As the British news website The Guardian wrote in “Quietly, symbolically, US control of the internet was just ended” (14 March 2016):
Why did we even need a carefully brokered deal to make managing the Internet the world’s business, and not America’s prerogative?… As the millions of dollars of business transacted over the Internet became trillions, and the first, second and then third billion people came online, it started to look a bit odd that one government had de jure control of a chunk of the Internet. And that this oversight was done via a procurement contract…. Under pressure from the EU and others, ICANN and the US government took small steps, spelling out their relationship in a deceptively simple document, the Affirmation of Commitments, in 2009. ICANN and the US would probably have muddled along together for another decade…
And then Snowden happened.
In September 2013, just months after the first Snowden revelations confirmed long-suspected global Internet surveillance by the US, the Internet’s elders rebelled. Technical organisations around the world issued the “Montevideo Statement”. No one was more surprised than themselves when the sleeping giants of technical organisations woke up and growled that the “recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance” had undermined the trust of Internet users around the world. It was time, they said, to hurry up and “globalise the IANA”…
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff… announced a global meeting to decide the future of the Internet. But just a few weeks before the meeting in early 2014, the US leapt in to grab back the steering wheel from Brazil, announcing it was finally ready to let go of ICANN/IANA. There were just a few conditions. The new oversight model had to be multi-stakeholder. It had to be developed by the world’s Internet community, whoever that is. It could not be run by governments. And only the US government could decide if the new model passed the test…
At a luxury hideaway in Morocco, two years of talks on ICANN’s running of the Internet finished with a deal… to end direct US government oversight control of administering the Internet and commit permanently to a slightly mysterious model of global “multi-stakeholderism”… a hodge-podge of different interests, meeting by conference call, email list and in different cities around the world to manage the Domain Name System…
A few months after negotiating the deal, the new ICANN model passed the test. On 09 June 2016, the U.S. Commerce Department’s NTIA “gave the green light to a plan developed over two years by the Internet community to hand control of the [IANA] contract to Californian nonprofit [ICANN]… ICANN has run the IANA functions [since 1999]… but through a contract awarded repeatedly to it by the NTIA.”
Not surprisingly, the announcement was met with “cautious optimism by the Internet community” as well as resistance by Republican congressmen who pushed the Protecting Internet Freedom Act to prevent the US from “giving the Internet away to a global organization that will allow over 160 foreign governments to have increased influence over the management and operation of the Internet”.
Do you wonder why Brazil, Cuba, Iran, and Zimbabwe pressed the UN “to assume ICANN’s functions”? Or why members of the EU clamored “to dilute American control”? Will the ICANN deal be “one of the worst blunders in the history of national security, economic policy, and the fight for liberty”? Or like the TPP deal, will “multi-stakeholder” cooperation be bought by multinational corporations? Why not?
What are my final thoughts?
Now, I won’t urge you to give up your Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Pandora, or YouTube time since they definitely have their uses. But if you have a moment, I might ask you to take a break, stretch your legs, and look out the window at the swirling geopolitical landscape, at our real-life House of Cards. In fact, my research turned up an intriguing IBM letter to ICANN from 23 September 1999. Very intriguing.
Office of the VP, Internet Technology
Somers, NY 10589
September 23, 1999
Ms. E. Dyson
Chair, Board of Directors
Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names and Numbers (ICANN)
On behalf of IBM Corporation, I am pleased to advise you that IBM will provide ICANN with a $100,000 contribution to help support the critically-important work of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. We appreciate the hard work that you, your colleagues on the Board, and many others have put into this effort, and believe that as a major Internet company, we too should do our fair share to help the Internet transition from US government to private sector management of administrative functions.
While this contribution is unconditional, we call on ICANN’s management and Board to use the equivalent funds, when ICANN’s financial position is sound, to further the democratization of ICANN and its affiliated bodies. While we have been very pleased with the important progress that ICANN has made to date in ensuring its democratic base, we would hope that these funds could be used to help ensure that, as ICANN develops a plan for the selection of “at large” members to its Board, those who might not normally have access to the decision-making channels of the Corporation would be assisted in doing so.
Best of luck in your important work.
John R. Patrick
What does it mean? I’m not sure. But as a current IBM employee, I find this 17-year-old letter to be very intriguing. While IBM’s “$100,000 contribution” might’ve been “unconditional”, the suggestion that “equivalent funds… could be used to help ensure that… those who might not normally have access to the decision-making channels of the Corporation would be assisted in doing so” is also revealing.
If the IBM multinational corporation can donate $100,000 in 1999, in the earliest days of Google, then how much can the Google multinational corporation donate to a global ICANN in 2016 and beyond?
- Who Controls the Internet? (www.slate.com)
- Real Socialism: Censorship (www.youtube.com)
- IBM Letter to ICANN: September 23, 1999 (www.icann.org)
- Implementation Planning, Execution, and NTIA’s Response (www.icann.org)
- US govt OKs handover of internet’s control panel to ICANN (www.theregister.co.uk)
- Obama administration backs plan to relinquish Internet control (www.foxnews.com)
- Two Months Left Until Obama Gives Dictators Control of Internet (www.breitbart.com)
- Quietly, symbolically, US control of the internet was just ended (www.theguardian.com)