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Playing Politics with the Internet

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.

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About the author

Richard Bennett is an ITIF Senior Research Fellow specializing in broadband networking and Internet policy. He has a 30 year background in network engineering and standards. He was vice-chair of the IEEE 802.3 task group that devised the original Ethernet over Twisted Pair standard, and has contributed to Wi-Fi standards for fifteen years. He was active in OSI, the instigator of RFC 1001, and founder, along with Bob Metcalfe, of the Open Token Foundation, the first network industry alliance to operate an interoperability lab. He has worked for leading applied research labs, where portions of his work were underwritten by DARPA. Richard is also the inventor of four networking patents and a member of the BITAG Technical Working Group.
  • Seth Finkelstein

    Serious question – regarding “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.”Does this apply to China, Iran, Syria, etc?Frankly, much of this article veers close to the apologetics of a police state (i.e., the kind that runs “Our traditional society has these values – security, safety, family. You, westerner, with your talk of freedom of expression, civil-liberties, and woman’s rights, are IMPOSING YOUR VALUES ON US!!!”).Note, people do know this philosophical problem.

  • Rob Atkinson

    Sure. But do we really have the right to tell a Muslim country that they should have free access to pornography, or tell Germany that they must restrict the ban on Mein Kampf or antisemetic speech. We may have different values but we certainly don”t have the right to say that these values, freely chosen in the case of a nation like Germany are not legitimate.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Rob, does the answer change for “China and human rights”? Muslim country and books like _The Satanic Verses_”? Can a country “freely choose” to be a theocracy? This is one of the big problems for liberal theory, but going the other way ends up accepting cutting off women’s genitals as a cultural value.

  • Rob Atkinson

    Seth, it absolutely does.  But it is no more right to say that we have a right to impose our values on everyone, including the Germans, as it is to say, we don’t have  right to impose (or encourage/press) our values on regimes which oppress human rights.   If we force a completely open "American" Internet that doesn’t let countries have some reasonable imposition of protection for their values then we risk limiting the global Internet. Robert D. Atkinson, Ph.D. President Information Technology and Innovation Foundation 1101 K Street, NW, Suite 610 Washington, DC 20005 (202) 626-5732 For pro-technology, non-partisan innovation policy from leading thinkers, check out the Innovation Policy Blog Twitter: @robatkinsonitif

  • Seth Finkelstein

    But haven’t you already gone to “risk limiting the global Internet” if you’re not going to accommodate China’s objection to what they view as subversive propaganda (i.e. what Westerners call advocacy of democracy?). China is, after all, a huge percentage of the global population, and a rising economic power. Drawing the line there is a pretty big chunk of the planet. Add in large sections of the Middle East which aren’t favorable to woman’s rights, and that’s another significant segment. It makes Germany’s issues with Mein Kampf seem rather trivial in terms of risk.By the way, America doesn’t like the current Internet either – too much information going around which the government has declared restricted (for commercial instead of political reasons, called “copyright”, but that’s simply whose ox is getting gored).So by the time it’s all added up, we really are talking about some Internet-successor that’s going to look very different from what we have now (which, _contra_ Richard Bennett, means ISOC is right!).

  • Richard Bennett

    I don’t happen to approve of the way that the governments of China and Saudi Arabia treat their citizens, and for that reason I don’t live there. But I’m not under the delusion that my status as as network engineer gives me leverage with such governments regarding their policies.I want all these fascist powers to allow their citizens to take part in the Internet, without any of my own conditions about what they can and can’t restrict, in other words. The Internet Society has enough to do on the technical side without getting into social engineering.

  • Richard Bennett

    So you agree with me, Seth, that ISOC is fragmenting the Internet into the “good, Western, democratic Internet” and the Other Net that conforms to local political values.How can it be any other way? China simply doesn’t recognize ISOC’s authority in political values. Tsk.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    It’s slightly more complicated though than “the delusion that my status as as network engineer gives me leverage with such governments regarding their policies.” Can technologists affect politics? I don’t know. It’s definitely difficult.You can certainly point out that changes these governments want will require very drastic re-engineering, possibly quite destructive (ISOC’s point as I see it).

  • Richard Bennett

    ISOC is severely overstating the technical side-effects in order to serve their political agenda. This fails to advance their agenda and undermines their status on the real technical problems.I should have titled this post “Crying Wolf.”

  • Seth Finkelstein

    I don’t see it. “The Internet Society Board cautioned against resorting to technological shortcuts to achieve public policy objectives, as such actions can threaten the good functioning of the global Internet as a single, unified, and global communications network. “This is an absolutely true statement. Your evident dislike of their politics may be coloring your views, making you reach to find something wrong you can denounce.

  • Richard Bennett

    Congratulations, Seth, you went for a platitude and came up with a nonsense statement. Tell me how “technological shortcuts” are bad. Do I have go without electricity?The Internet isn’t a “single, unified, global network,” it’s a network of autonomous systems, each run according to its own policies and its own technology.ISOC failed Internet 101.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Sigh. Why do I bother? It doesn’t do any good. It’s a perfectly reasonable statement, and if you want to feel justified by pounding a straw-man, I don’t think I can dissuade you. You just want to attack them. When you sneer at “failed Internet 101″, you’re showing you’re far more willing to distort to make a political point. Their statement actually takes that into account, again, “can threaten the good functioning of the global Internet as a single, unified, and global communications network” – those “network of autonomous systems” INTERCONNECT, and it’s possible to break that connectivity by, drumroll, “resorting to technological shortcuts” (which I take as referring to stuff like the proposed DNS blacklisting). Indeed, breaking that connectivity is exactly the point – and just how far can it go? It’s more of a truism than a platitude. But it’s politically unacceptable to you.

  • Richard Bennett

    All I need is for someone to show how a local DNS blacklist breaks the Internet. And as you know very well, we’ve been blacklisting spammers for a long time.

  • James A. Lewis

    When the internet was young, and mainly American, people in other countries thought it was magic and that the American wizards knew what they were talking about when they said commons, no government, multisteakholder. Now they realize we were full of manure and are doing something else as they explore different ways to extend sovereign control onto the internet. We may not like what they are doing but we won’t stop it by arguing that they should stick with the old approach to internet governance. Another sign of US decline because our ideas are dumb. CSIS 1800 K Street NW Washington, D.C. 20006 (t)202 775 3247 (f) 202 775 3199