THE BLOG
12/05/2014 02:50 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

The New Social Contract for The Internet

Sam Edwards via Getty Images

We have reason to rejoice these days. Ever since the world became aware of U.S. policy to surveil Internet users en masse, the ground has shifted under the idea of 'Internet Governance.' This term, if not yet extinct, is at least already outdated.

For many people, 'Internet Governance' was little more than an empty buzzword. Few will mourn its passing. Those who benefit from imbalances of power over the Internet might think this is good news; the end of 'Internet Governance' could remove obstacles to complete domination. But, for them, I think this news will be especially unwelcome. As the concept of 'Internet Governance' loses value, 'Internet Public Policy' rises alongside it. Here's what the change looks like.

During the recent Geneva Internet Platform conference, I met Bob Kahn, one of the authors of TCP/IP. TCP/IP is one of many protocols defining how computers, servers and networks route data. By far the dominant protocol, TCP/IP gave the Internet its 'interconnecticity' (another buzzword, borne of 'interconnectivity' and 'velocity'), and the impression of the web as a discrete and fluid space. Kahn, in one of his many visits to Geneva, had just presented his latest 'baby,' the Digital Object Naming Association, a tool for assigning a unique global number to every object in the Internet. Kahn's new prima DONA, as he put it, resembles the early IANA under Jon Postel. "Very early on, Jon was corresponding with me about the naming and numbering system established for the Internet (IANA). He would receive calls from all over. Once, the chief of staff for the King of Jordan asked why a student was handling domains from his classroom at Amman University. We replied that we had no religious stance, and they let him keep the job."

But why has DONA chosen a Swiss home address instead of joining ICANN, IANA's host, in sunny southern California? Kahn shared his thoughts: "IANA and DONA are similar, but as we talked to different governments about global numbering, the Chinese and others said, 'if this system is set up as a U.S. non-profit under U.S. jurisdiction and control, we won't use it.' This is why we opted for a Swiss foundation." I asked him why IANA wasn't a Swiss foundation from the start, as Dr. Postel once wished. Kahn, who had differed from Postel on this point, gave a simple answer: "The last thing you wanted was regulation, but things have changed."

If DONA is incorporated in Switzerland, the question remains: How much control will the U.S. try to exert? Governance of DONA will be a matter of global public policy; oversight can't be unilateral. Even Kahn's personal patent to "protect this new object numbering process" will come under scrutiny, especially if the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) gets involved in Kahn's numbering system.

In a twist of historical irony, Louis Pouzin, another Internet Hall-of-Famer, was in the audience when Kahn presented DONA. The French polytechnicien was the first to use datagrams to exchange data packets in a network. In February 1973, Pouzin presented his work to Kahn and Vint Cerf, when they were still puzzling over data packet exchanges between networks (a puzzle they solved with TCP/IP). Unlike Kahn with DONA, all three researchers were working on public grants (Pouzin for France, Kahn and Cerf for DARPA), and so none patented his work. The French Wikipedia page says "Pouzin's work was used greatly by Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf to create TCP/IP," whereas the U.S. Wikipedia page puts it differently: "His work influenced Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf and others in the development of TCP/IP protocols used by the Internet." Cerf is now VP of Google, Kahn still hates regulation and Pouzin is a computer scientist turned activist competing against ICANN for more Internet through alternative open routing. It's no surprise that Pouzin advocates for re-balancing Internet power away from the U.S..

For years, the U.S. exploited unbalanced power to make 'Internet Governance' a diplomatic no-man's land, which it alone policed through vague processes of self-nomination to a Byzantine nominating committee to... Formal consensus was always kept at bay, unfavorable issues scuttled and decisive votes avoided. A not-so-democratic world. But now, a number of governments have already had their say in the role DONA could play in the Internet. Such a shaping of the tech landscape is a sign of this shift away from 'Internet Governance' to public geo-politics and geo-economics.

The NetMundial Initiative, announced last summer as a joint venture by ICANN and the World Economic Forum, involves WEF's 750 transnational corporate members, who bring countless global leaders and social activists to Davos, even though some are left out in the snow. This 'initiative' follows the NETMundial 'summit' in Sao Paulo last April. The summit proved to be a carrot for Brazil, who walked away the diplomatic bon hôte. But for all of President Rousseff's finger-wagging at the UN over U.S. surveillance, the U.S. skirted the issue at the Brazil summit by announcing it could end its IANA oversight, with control shifting, conditionally, to a "multistakeholder" arrangement, possibly ICANN itself.

No one expected WEF and ICANN to follow up the summit by launching the NetMundial Initiative. Some summit participants felt the NETMundial name was hijacked. Others worried NetMundial would co-opt both the name and the joint statement made by the conference participants, even though there is no official listing of the signatories. There are persistent murmurings of re-writing the NETMundial principles under the NetMundial Initiative, which, sadly, hasn't mobilized many of the summit participants.

Some participants went further, like the Just Net Coalition, which strongly refused to join the Initiative. For that matter, the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) also declined to join the NetMundial Initiative. Just Net Coalition sees the Initiative drawing the corporate elite into a new power center, a global Internet 'establishment.' ISOC may see the Initiative as a rival. The Just Net Coalition, an umbrella for civil society organizations from around the globe, has called on civil society not to join NetMundial. But many join nonetheless, because "nature abhors a vacuum," "we will know our enemy better, if we join," or "we will be able to influence from within."

Wherever one stands, when the WEF calls for "constructive debate over non-technological issues," the fog begins to clear. Debates about safe encryption, mass surveillance, interconnection, searching, aggregating personal profiles, localized data within national jurisdictions -- many issues once considered dry and technical -- are transformed to be political. Once WEF's wealthy corporate members become interested in these issues, heads of state soon follow, and deputy ministers and undersecretaries of telecommunication will be scrambling to brief the higher levels of government around the world.

In May 2014, the shift was signaled elsewhere: The advocate general for the EU's Court of Justice argued that Google shouldn't honor individuals' "right to be forgotten." No one expected Google to lose. But the Court's judgment upended the advocate general's case -- surprise! The decision was a re-affirmation of political will; it bolstered the European personal data directive passed three years before Google's launch. Remember, a directive is a legal and regulatory act by the European Council, Commission and Parliament, not a "multistakeholder" decision involving corporations, special experts and whoever else can insinuate themselves into the fray. The judgment was in favor of a democratic Europe protecting its citizens' rights and against the supremacy of a transnational corporation.

The European Parliament recently called for Google to break up. This action was supported by a large majority of MPs. The Internet is truly back in politics. But this doesn't mean the U.S. will stop derailing whatever contravenes its interests. The last time the Internet enjoyed so much political attention was in 1995 -- the year the EU passed the personal data directive -- when Al Gore recognized the value of controlling the Internet root zone. After three years of lobbying, control was wrested away from academics and given to a California non-profit by the United States government. Since then, the U.S. has controlled its contract with ICANN for the performance of the IANA function.

Now, 15 years of 'Internet Governance' are being dumped into the dustbin of history, along with the "multistakeholder" narrative and its foggy concepts like the "equal footing," which tries to make corporate votes equal to state votes in Internet matters. It is critical that we recognize these concerns as in the public interest, not allow them to be only vested interests.

We might also ask whether the repeated calls to protect freedom of expression for the individual -- a watchword against intervention in Internet affairs -- is not a ruse for avoiding regulation on the grounds that the Internet is like life: It all boils down to individual choice. The sum of individuals' actions does not match the needs of the poor, fragile and forgotten in society. The Internet can disrupt daily life and the social order in good ways and bad, but when disruption obscures the democratic social contract, it is a matter of grave concern.

Stepping in political science, Vint Cerf made a telling attempt to quote Rousseau in a recent public chat. Google's "Chief Internet Evangelist" ineptly twisted the philosopher's Du Contrat Social, a major writing of the Enlightenment, which calls on citizens to abandon part of their personal sovereignty to a state. In turn, the state protects them and their right to electoral representation. Cerf read (see 01:03:10) that, "roughly speaking", Rousseau says: "Citizens give up some of their privacy in exchange for safety." This must be a different Rousseau, maybe one who works in the NSA's public relations department. Or perhaps this is just how Rousseau looks through Google Glass. Whatever the case, it's touching to see a computer scientist waxing philosophical about social justice, especially when it's the VP of Google trying to legitimate mass surveillance. Here, too, we see the Internet courting traditional politics, even if Cerf merely muddles them. Old power is new power.

It is time for our Internet masters, most of them in the U.S., to acknowledge that a state is not just a counter-terrorism agency or a counter-regulating body. Each state must stand for social peace, public health, education, welfare, protection and prosperity for its citizens and neighbors. We must pressure our governments to re-balance Internet power and care about digital policies so that it reinforces democracy instead of marginalizing it. Let's see citizens drive Internet public policies not simply with clicks and logs but with a vote.

Jean-Christophe Nothias

Post-scriptum: During the same Geneva Internet Conference, we had the pleasure of meeting Helena Dalli, Malta's Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties. Listening to her explain her views on digital policies, I was reassured that there is indeed room for innovation in politics, and not just through "public funded" research that makes fortunes for private entities who are smart enough to be in the right place at the right time.