I suppose this was inevitable. The Internet Society, the non-profit that oversees the development of Internet technical standards and generally promotes Internet adoption, has decided to play politics. ISOC issued a press release last week commenting on the Arab Spring, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and efforts around the world to enlist technical help in dealing with the problem of Internet-enabled crime. As one might expect of good Western adherents of the principles of diversity, inclusion, and human rights, ISOC endorsed the view that the Internet only enables good things, so it has to be left alone by mere national governments concerned with petty “economic, security, or political objectives.”
In particular, the release took aim at the “DNS blocking and filtering” mechanisms that are used to limit spam and which have been proposed as means to limit access to malicious phishing sites, sites that sell counterfeit drugs, and those that deal in pirated movies. The release essentially equates these practices with surveillance technology and the suspension of Internet access.
Not only has ISOC departed from its mission in a very significant way, it has embarked on a slippery slope that can only hurt the Internet’s growth and adoption in the long run. Their message to national leaders is very clear: “If you’re going to allow your citizens to use the Internet, not only must you play by our technical rules, you must accept our political values as well.” Essentially, ISOC is asserting authority over the decision-making processes of duly-constituted national governments in all matters that involve the Internet. It’s one thing to take the bully pulpit and argue for particular technical solutions to the day-to-day operational problems that beset the Internet, but it’s an entirely different one to attack the very basis of national government.
It’s also painfully naïve.
The Arab Spring, for one thing, certainly inspired many people around the world – including our Occupy Wall Street protestors – with the promise of better government through peaceful protest. But it’s far from certain that the results of these uprisings are going to advance the agenda that ISOC is desperate to promote. The first official act of the interim government of Libya was to overturn Qaddafi’s ban on polygamous marriage, and we now know that some of the Tahrir Square protesters celebrated their “victory” by sexually assaulting correspondent Lara Logan. It’s likely that the governments that will emerge from these uprisings will cling fast to social agendas more in line with the religious fundamentalism of tribal society than with the urban sophistication of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. We would like for this to be otherwise, but we have to face the facts as they are.
Any anti-crime measure passed by a national legislature anywhere in the world can be criticized on numerous grounds, so we always have to ask whether the crime is well-defined, whether the measure invites malicious application, and whether standards of evidence and recourse are adequate. But these are questions we put to our legislatures in our capacity as citizens, not as members of some super-class of transnational Internet users exempt from national law.
The Internet’s only concern with national laws is whether they will impair the adoption and operation of the Internet for lawful purposes in each and every country where it is used. It’s up to governments to identify the limits of these purposes, and for Internet advocates to work with national lawmakers to devise the most effective and least disruptive means of achieving national policy goals. We know, for example, that the blacklisting used to limit spam is effective and minimally disruptive, even though false positives are to be found in every anti-spam blacklist. We accept the inconvenience of removing false positives from these databases because we want the benefit that comes from the blacklists’ ability to reduce the volume of spam by some 95 percent.
Similarly, we want creative enterprises to continue producing new movies, so we accept the inconvenience of paying license holders for their products and measures that prevent the unfair enrichment of offshore movie pirates. Such measures may be defined well and they may be defined poorly, but there should be no question that they’re a necessary part of the web of collaboration that makes the Internet work.
ISOC and the IETF technical process it manages can play constructive roles in guiding anti-crime efforts toward constructive solutions. In fact, these organizations have contributed in a very meaningful way to good technical solutions in the past without playing politics. There has been a very disturbing trend of late, starting with IETF Chairman Russ Housley’s politically-motivated and technically incorrect remarks about the Internet’s Differentiated Services protocol and continuing with this press statement, to subordinate the Internet’s standards and technical realities to specific policy goals.
If this trend continues, the only logical outcome is for the International Telecommunications Union to assert jurisdiction over Internet governance. ITU is the arm of the United Nations that oversees the telephone network, and it’s no secret that is has long wished to take the Internet away from ISOC. ITU is an international body supported by a number of national governments, and unlike ISOC, it’s an organization of accomplished political players that moves freely in the halls of the UN and in national capitols around the world. If ISOC engages in a political fight with ITU, it will surely lose.
The Internet is a politically neutral system, as are most technologies. Just as nuclear radiation can be used for bombs, x-rays, and electricity, the Internet can be used for both laudable and malicious purposes. It offends reason to argue, as ISOC does, that the Internet’s technical underpinnings can’t accommodate the legitimate needs of human society as defined by national governments.
This attitude is not so much pure and noble as naïve and foolish, and it must be abandoned for the Internet to achieve its full potential.