The Battle for Internet Governance

Good article on the current battle for Internet governance:

The War for the Internet was inevitable — a time bomb built into its creation. The war grows out of tensions that came to a head as the Internet grew to serve populations far beyond those for which it was designed. Originally built to supplement the analog interactions among American soldiers and scientists who knew one another off-line, the Internet was established on a bedrock of trust: trust that people were who they said they were, and trust that information would be handled according to existing social and legal norms. That foundation of trust crumbled as the Internet expanded. The system is now approaching a state of crisis on four main fronts.

The first is sovereignty: by definition, a boundary-less system flouts geography and challenges the power of nation-states. The second is piracy and intellectual property: information wants to be free, as the hoary saying goes, but rights-holders want to be paid and protected. The third is privacy: online anonymity allows for creativity and political dissent, but it also gives cover to disruptive and criminal behavior — and much of what Internet users believe they do anonymously online can be tracked and tied to people’s real-world identities. The fourth is security: free access to an open Internet makes users vulnerable to various kinds of hacking, including corporate and government espionage, personal surveillance, the hijacking of Web traffic, and remote manipulation of computer-controlled military and industrial processes.

Posted on April 4, 2012 at 12:34 PM26 Comments


Daniel April 4, 2012 2:31 PM

The Internet is not an acultural phenomenon despite the fact that it’s presented that way. It carries with it a certain set of cultural values that are inherent in it and intrinsic to it. These values will be resisted. This is the same problem that democracy has always had and why the League of Nations and its follow-up the United Nations have been for the most part toothless monsters. It’s not simply the case that people don’t agree; they don’t even agree on how to reach agreement.

“Safe hands are dangerous hands”. Who says crap like that. I can think of several major world cultures off the top of my head that would that would find such a statement ludicrous. So intellectual appeals to things “everyone knows” are DOA. The war over the internet will be resolved the same way all wars are resolved: with violence.

Imran Soudagar April 4, 2012 2:37 PM

The internet has became one the most worst place to visit these days. Every where you go you see a lot of illegal and pirated stuff. Racism/Hate and God knows what else is hidden in the WWW. The real problem is governing it. And no one can govern it.

llewelly April 4, 2012 2:40 PM

“The third is privacy: online anonymity allows for creativity and political dissent, but it also gives cover to disruptive and criminal behavior — and much of what Internet users believe they do anonymously online can be tracked and tied to people’s real-world identities. ”

That’s having it both ways.

greg April 4, 2012 2:43 PM

Slightly off topic, but has everyone had CISPA on their radar here? It’s kind of like SOPA but worse.

“It effectively creates a “cybersecurity” exemption to all existing laws.

There are almost no restrictions on what can be collected and how it can be used, provided a company can claim it was motivated by “cybersecurity purposes.” ”

Mailman April 4, 2012 2:51 PM

“Every where you go you see a lot of illegal and pirated stuff.”

Your Internet and my Internet seem very different. Most of what I see online perfectly legitimate. Not only that, but content itself is not illegal. What may be illegal is uploading said content or downloading it from a particular country.

Sweere April 4, 2012 3:10 PM

Two parallel Internets?

Might it be possible (how?) to fashion an Internet and a SecureNet, wherein they’re at the opposite extremes mentioned, wherein one is the wild west and the other is for known persons doing private things in a trusted environment. A challenge – how far down the OSI Model levels can we realistically go?

Brendan Kidwell April 4, 2012 3:11 PM

I haven’t read the whole thing yet but I question the credibility of this article when it states in the first few paragraphs that Iran and China (among others) want to control what people can do on the Internet and implies that the US government does not want to do this.

volley April 4, 2012 3:34 PM

“Information wants to be free” does not refer to free as in free beer. I believe the saying merely implies that information will find its way…

IMO, if a copyright holder’s way is also the easy way, payment and information flow can co-exist.

Carl 'SAI' Mitchell April 4, 2012 3:38 PM

The internet has become one of the worst places to visit these days. Everywhere you go you see a lot of attempts to censor it, by both governments and corporations. The real problem is preserving the freedom of speech, and the ISPs have an interest in degrading that.

wumpus April 4, 2012 5:28 PM

It took governments this long to realize that the Internet is extremely useful for committing thoughtcrime?

Pointy haired bosses, the lot of them.

llewelly April 4, 2012 5:55 PM

“It took governments this long to realize that the Internet is extremely useful for committing thoughtcrime?”

Happiest thought in thread.

rajesh April 4, 2012 7:10 PM

Just asking for the sake of my knowledge, has it something to do with cyber-switch priviledge of the US president office?

the_black_hand April 4, 2012 9:45 PM

and so it begins… the greatest war of our time for control of the internet.

it should never be regulated, it should never be blacked out. if they ever do gain control then god help us all.

Magnum April 4, 2012 10:26 PM

From the intro to the article: “Battle lines have been drawn between repressive regimes and Western democracies”

It’s handy to keep in mind that ‘repressive regimes’ includes most Western powers, while I struggle to think of any actual ‘Western democracies’.

Clive Robinson April 5, 2012 5:12 AM

There is another major reason that there is a Battle for the Internet, which to a certain extent underpins some of the four points.

It’s “the death of distance” effects on economics and the movment of money and thus tax.

As a general rule sovereign nations survive by raising tax on the movment of goods and trade etc (direct taxation on peoples income generaly is a small fraction of the tax take). Any movment of goods across their borders that is not declared for “revenue” is regarded as smuggling which in some jurisdictions still indirectly carries a death sentence without trial (that is no penalties are reserved for an excise officer carrying out their duties and defending themselves in any way they see fit or when trying to apprehend a suspect).

Now one of the axioms of traditional economics is “distance has cost” it alows for multiple players to arise and gain sufficient strength to rival others with their respective spheres of influance being limited by the “cost of distance”. Thus in any given market the players are multiple and distributed where ever the need for the goods and services of that market arise.

Now with there being near zero cost of distance on the internet the spere of influance is not restricted it’s as wide as the internet. And this has given rise to “first to market is the winner who takes all” provided they don’t either drop the ball or alow others to tread on their patch

The problem with the internet is for intangible goods and services transportation costs are so small they are effectivly irrelevant when compared to other traditional costs such as taxation and labour so two effects occure,

1, Businesses become virtual and site their head offices in low tax nations.
2, Businesses site their production sites where the labour costs are lowest.

But for sovereign nations there is a problem what if a good or service is given for free? as is the norm for the big players in social networking etc etc. That is how do you raise tax revenue on it…

Even when a service is purchased by tradition the transaction takes place not where the customer is but where the service is billed from and the tax is payed where the transaction occurs

As we move more into an information economy the tax take will decrease except in those places which have low rates of tax. Companies with virtual head offices can put them in tax havens. Many tangible goods now have the ability to be intangable, due to 3D printers. You break a plate at home, you simply “print out” or “replicate” a new one. Even where you can not “print out” a product directly the economies of mass production tied to the intangables of information for customization wins. For instance look at Signal processing on the PC you used to have to buy seperate expensive self contained items such as data and fax modems, printers etc. Now you just buy the external interface and software on the PC drives it.

As time goes on and CPU power increases more and more of a product will become software and the interface will become more and more general in nature. This can be seen with the likes of Software Defined Radio, engine managment, and many “white goods” and “domestic entertainment” systems. We already see the likes of games consoles and printers being sold for less than their production and shipping costs, with the profits comming from “consumables”, in the case of printers the consumables are tangables and the same for some games consoles as well currently but this is changing to “online”. It will not be long before the printer manufactures catch on to the idea of various levels of software you “licence” too give you extra features etc to get low tax revenue to suplement the high tax revenue of physical consumables.

The internet has the advantage of currently alowing “legal smuggling” the question is how much longer will sovereign nations continue to take the revenue hit and worse for them seeing money move from the home economy to a foreign economy. Of the two the second is the most insidious because of “churn” where every unit of currency that stays in the home economy has around ten times it’s value in economic activity thus providing more home revenue. Once exported the unit of currancy provides churn and economic activity in what is effectivly a hostile nation strengthaning their economy at the expense of the home economy.

Most traditional Western nations are already seeing the effects of this re-balancing of wealth from their economy into what where considered to be third world nations.

Some countries have woken up and realised there are three things that a nation realy needs to survive, Control of raw resources, Control of energy supply and Control of “intellectual Property” and the wealth this control supplies.

Thus control of the movment and wealth involved with Intellectual Property is going to be seen as a very high priority in nations that have squandered their raw resources and energy sources.

karrde April 5, 2012 10:22 AM

“The third is privacy: online anonymity allows for creativity and political dissent, but it also gives cover to disruptive and criminal behavior — and much of what Internet users believe they do anonymously online can be tracked and tied to people’s real-world identities. ”

That’s having it both ways.

It is weirdly true. Networks are constructed so that the physical endpoints of the machines on the network can be discovered by those with access to the hardware that supports the network (and software logs of servers/routers/etc. on the network). Most data created/transmitted/posted on the network can be tracked to a physical endpoint.

An administrator with access to appropriate records can usually track anything transmitted on the Network to a particular node that has owner-information attached to the node.

However, most of the identifying information seen in typical user-interface to the Network is effectively anonymous.

Then there’s the stuff that appears anonymous but can be called Personally Identifiable Information.

Bruce has posted on that concept before.

No One April 5, 2012 10:46 AM

@Sweere: Then those that use the Wild West net will be branded criminals because only those with something to hide would dare use it. Kind of like how the current usage of Freenet is widely believed to be a haven for CP and nothing else of merit.

GuS April 6, 2012 2:52 AM

Marketing: Hey, I’ve heard that it’s now possible to store our media in computerized form, something they call “binary”. That would make it so much cheaper for us to distribute our music, films and whatever.

Tech department: Absolutely. It’s very efficient and a very cheap way to distribute contents.

Marketing: I want that.

Tech: There’s one potential problem, though…

Marketing: No. There’s not. You’re tech. You should provide solutions, not problems.

Tech: Agreed, but… Please, be aware that any information stored in this “binary” form can be copied. Over and over again. As many times anyone wants to.

Marketing: But then they’ll have to pay.

Tech: Who? There’s technically absolutely no way to distinguish a copy from the original.

Marketing: Don’t you try. A copy is a copy is a copy. Has always been.

Tech: You have to believe me on this. It’s technical. I’m a tech. You can’t see the difference between the $%^&llions of copies that could be produced and the original.

Marketing: Then we’ll just call the cops. They will protect our economical interests. That’s what we pay them to do.

Tech: They won’t be able to, either.

Marketing: Stop whining. We just had a marvelous idea that will save us a lot of bucks. We like bucks. Do you like bucks too? Do you appreciate the small amounts of bucks you receive in the end of the month? Do you?

Tech: Yes, of course I do.

Marketing: Then do what we tell you. You’ll get the bucks in the end of the months. And if it’s actually as bad as you just told us, we’ll require that you resolve the situation. But, that’s LATER. And we care about NOW, right? NOW’s your pay check, OK? Go do.

Tech goes off to implement, receives a few more bucks.

David Wallin April 10, 2012 10:27 AM

Sure wish the author would take his excellent expertise and reign in Vote Scam providing a permanent solution to custody of voting results. Can it be done?

Julien Couvreur April 10, 2012 3:17 PM

Instead of battle for governance of the Internet, I would say there is an effort for governance (driven by market participants) and a battle to control the Internet (driven by governments).

The Internet is a great illustration of everything that’s wrong with government.

Sovereignty: Having a territorial monopoly on power is arbitrary as human activities and organizations don’t need such boundaries. Why do we need geographically defined “nations”? Is the internet a terrible place because it’s lack of state (anarchy)?

Piracy: So-called intellectual property rights are no actually defendable rights. They are incompatible with common notions of property (in oneself and in physical goods). That governments have been able to pass and enforce a law does not make it a right. Instead it teaches people to ignore the law (see alcohol prohibition, current piracy trends).

Privacy, identity and security: These are not fundamental problems (although governments are using those as excuses to tighten their grip on this domain of free activity). They are all simply features.
If some services or protocols want to tie into strong identity, they could do so (open in-person authentication agencies and procedures just like passports).
If some services want to offer stronger privacy protection and guarantees, they could do so.
If some services want to invest heavily in security, they can do so too (build a separate network, disconnect from main internet, create VPN tunnels, spend R&D to tighten software). All those are fixable at a cost and each case will warrant a different set of trade-offs (just like you put a security guard in a bank, but not in each home).
If some issues (like spam bots and zombies) are significant, then ISPs and owners of the infrastructure can figure out solutions. ISPs that don’t try hard enough (they basically harbor zombies) can be rejected by other ISPs until they behave better.

Brandon April 10, 2012 4:38 PM

Clive: thank you for one of the best arguments I’ve read on the side-effects of outsourcing.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.