Safe­guard­ing the open In­ter­net

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Pro­pos­als re­gard­ing In­ter­net gov­er­nance gen­er­ate se­ri­ous fric­tion. The on­line world, pro­vided enor­mous op­por­tu­ni­ties to bil­lions largely be­cause it has never been gov­erned.

And yet, as the In­ter­net grows in im­por­tance, so do the risks in­her­ent in the lack of reg­u­la­tion. There is a grow­ing dan­ger that the open plat­form we all cher­ish will in­creas­ingly be colonised by cor­po­rate greed, crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, and con­flict be­tween states – with or­di­nary cit­i­zens the ul­ti­mate vic­tims.

It is es­sen­tial that safe­guards be put in place, and that coun­tries and com­pa­nies alike are bound by prin­ci­ples that en­cour­age them to act in the com­mon in­ter­est.

The utopian view that gov­ern­ments and other in­sti­tu­tions should stay out of the way ig­nores the role that coun­tries are al­ready play­ing on the In­ter­net, of­ten se­cretly. Nor does it ac­count for the fact that gi­ant com­pa­nies are ex­ploit­ing this largely un­reg­u­lated en­vi­ron­ment to set them­selves up as the new sov­er­eigns.

When a coun­try cen­sors on­line con­tent on a mas­sive scale or uses dig­i­tal back­doors to mon­i­tor its cit­i­zens, the en­tire In­ter­net feels the im­pact. Sim­i­larly, when com­pa­nies with bil­lions of users scat­tered around the world suf­fer data breaches or choose to pur­sue prof­its at the ex­pense of uni­ver­sal hu­man rights, it is not cur­rently clear who can hold them to ac­count.

Hu­man rights can­not be “bal­anced” with the in­ter­ests of are bound to af­ter all, has of denizens, states or com­mer­cial com­pa­nies. Up­hold­ing core prin­ci­ples re­quires a sys­tem of checks and bal­ances – mech­a­nisms that can en­sure that hu­man rights, in­clud­ing pri­vacy, are safe­guarded, even as le­git­i­mate se­cu­rity con­cerns are taken into ac­count.

Do­ing this will re­quire the key play­ers re­spon­si­ble for the In­ter­net’s open­ness to en­ter into a mix of vol­un­tary and bind­ing agree­ments that es­tab­lish some­thing akin to the rule of law.

Un­til now, dis­cus­sions about In­ter­net gov­er­nance have aimed at es­tab­lish­ing vol­un­tary norms. Th­ese are im­por­tant first steps, but if the process does not even­tu­ally lead to bind­ing agree­ments, it is un­likely to suc­ceed in keep­ing the In­ter­net func­tion­ing and safe. Rev­e­la­tions of per­va­sive on­line sur­veil­lance have al­ready eroded trust in the In­ter­net and its suit­abil­ity for com­mu­ni­cat­ing, ac­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion, and do­ing busi­ness.

It is cru­cial that the In­ter­net’s cen­tral pro­to­cols be de­clared a neu­tral zone, free from in­ter­fer­ence by any party, as per a rec­om­men­da­tion by the sci­en­tific coun­cil that is ad­vis­ing the Dutch gov­ern­ment. This mea­sure, which will work only if it is bind­ing, is in the in­ter­est of all coun­tries and com­pa­nies, be­cause the trust that users have in the ser­vices built on top of th­ese pro­to­cols de­pends on it. Among the pro­tected el­e­ments would be TCP/IP pro­to­col suites, var­i­ous stan­dards, the domain name sys­tem (DNS), and rout­ing pro­to­cols.

The Global Com­mis­sion on In­ter­net Gov­er­nance (of which I am a mem­ber) has put for­ward a pro­posal for “a new so­cial com­pact” among cit­i­zens, their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, law-en­force­ment and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, busi­nesses, civil-so­ci­ety groups, and pro­gram­mers and de­vel­op­ers. Among the pro­vi­sions would be the recog­ni­tion of pri­vacy and per­sonal data pro­tec­tion as a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right, and a call for clear, pre­cise, and trans­par­ently cre­ated reg­u­la­tions that set lim­its on gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance and com­pa­nies’ use of con­sumer data.

Un­der this frame­work, gov­er­nance would strengthen the tech­nol­ogy upon which the In­ter­net de­pends. Gov­ern­ments would not seek to cre­ate back­doors to ac­cess data if do­ing so would make the In­ter­net less se­cure. Com­pa­nies that store or trans­mit con­sumer data would as­sume greater re­spon­si­bil­ity for il­le­gal in­tru­sion, dam­age, or de­struc­tion. And ef­forts by the In­ter­net’s tech­ni­cal cus­to­di­ans to in­cor­po­rate hu­man­rights-en­hanc­ing so­lu­tions in stan­dards and pro­to­cols, in­clud­ing end-to-end data en­cryp­tion, would be en­cour­aged.

Such a so­cial com­pact and multi-stake­holder process would not re­place ju­di­cial over­sight and in­ter­na­tional hu­man-rights law.

Ex­ist­ing gov­er­nance in­sti­tu­tions should be brought to bear on In­ter­net reg­u­la­tion wher­ever pos­si­ble. But, given the enor­mous chal­lenges that this en­tails, it is also nec­es­sary to en­cour­age all ac­tors to be­have in the best in­ter­est of the In­ter­net ecosys­tem as a whole. The dan­gers of do­ing oth­er­wise are sim­ply too great.

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