GEOG 479
Cyber-Geography in Geospatial Intelligence

Internet Policies and Practices


Internet Policies and Practices

These issues were a core part of the discussions as countries negotiated a global telecommunications treaty in Dubai in December 2014. The contentious new text that resulted led many countries, including the United States, not to sign the treaty because of its language on network security, spam control, and expansion of the UN’s role in Internet governance.

Testimony of Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 12Mar2013, page 6.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was founded in 1998 as an international organization responsible for the technical management and coordination of the Internet’s domain name system and its unique identifiers. It is responsible for coordinating the Internet’s:

  • IP address space allocation;
  • protocol identifier assignment;
  • generic and country code top-level domain name system management;
  • root server system management functions.

In fulfilling its charter, ICANN is guided by four founding principles:

  • to preserve the operational stability and security of the Internet, particularly the domain name system;
  • to promote competition and choice for registrants, especially in the generic top-level domain arena;
  • to achieve broad representation of global Internet communities;
  • to develop policy appropriate to its mission through bottom-up, consensus-based processes.

One vital ICANN process is the opportunity for public comment on each substantial piece of work before it is put forward for final approval by the Board. An ICANN webpage provides a one-stop shop where issues for public comment can be tracked. It outlines the public comment periods currently open, recently closed, or upcoming. It also provides links to an archive of closed forums, relevant reports, and official announcements. This provides insights for decision makers and creates a record for the community at large on contributing factors.

Several nations started to challenge the decentralized, open governance of the Internet and, as back in December 2012, proposed a more top-down system of control. Such top-down regulation could potentially threaten freedom of expression, and limit the openness and creativity that the US led current governance policies allowed. As of 1October 2016, control of the "address book" was handed over to ICAAN. ICANN had already been overseeing the distribution of all Internet addresses, and on this date it officially became the owner the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, a large database that contains all Internet domain names.

If the future governance of the Internet were in the hands of a global regulatory body (the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) under the UN), it is possible that some countries would attempt to undermine some aspects of the Internet that ensure freedom. Russia and China have been vocal in their desire both to see a more top-down regulation of the Internet and for the US to lose some of the particular levels of control.

A Little History

On March 14, 2014, Washington announced it would "transition" these duties away, and let its contract with ICANN expire in 2015, shedding itself of one of the last remnants of US control of the Internet. The U.S. government has held some control over the Web ever since its launch in the late 1960s as a program that was developed in the US by the military and academia to exchange information.That program evolved over time into the Internet.

No one knew who would take over once the U.S. ceded control. Policy optimists at the time envisioned a model 21st century group composed of tech whiz kids to Google-size corporations, from human rights advocates to interested governmental bodies all harmoniously working together to manage the Internet. A process to define a new approach to the governance of the Internet was launched at a March 2014 conference in Singapore. A follow-up gathering was held in late April 2014 hosted by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in São Paolo. Brazil was v ery vocal in its support for change based on the Snowdon revelations.

It was feared that because International conferences sometimes end in disagreement with nothing accomplished such would be the end result for any conference convened on the future of ICAAN. Instead of collaboration and consensus, undemocratic governments might be willing to stifle the freedoms enjoyed by Internet users. If that had occurred, some unnamed United Nations bureaucrat may get to decide who could register an Internet domain name and who would not be allowed to if they were deemed to be too disruptive by authoritarian governments.

Such criticism emerged immediately after the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that it had informed ICANN, which it controls, to "transition" itself away from the functions it was currently performing, and start the "final phase" of Internet privatization.

The then ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, John Thune of South Dakota stated, “I trust the innovators and entrepreneurs more than the bureaucrats — whether they're in D.C. or Brussels,” but added, “there are people who want to see the Internet fall into the grip of the U.N.” or another “unaccountable organization with the power to control the Internet, and we cannot allow this.”

In response to this and other comments the NTIA's top spokesman, Lawrence Strickling, issued a statement in March 2014, stating any transition, must "protect the security, stability and resiliency of the Internet," and that the US, “will not accept a proposal that replaces NTIA's role with a government-led or an intergovernmental solution.” Strickling followed up with a promise that the NTIA would continue to perform its current role as a steward of the Internet as long the concerns aren’t met or if the U.N. tries to take over the administration of the Net.

The UN did not agree and did not exclude the idea of an "intergovernmental" body's future involvement. How the transition went along smoothly. Based on revelations regarding the spying on the Internet by the NSA, then U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed as did Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) the idea taht some UN body that might be vested with a central controlling role of the Net sometime in the future. The Malian-born Touré, has headed the ITU since 2010, and received his computer engineering education at universities in Leningrad and Moscow, in the Soviet Union before its collapse. The ITU is controlled by a 48-member council including representatives from Cuba, Egypt and China, and other countries where Web access is strictly controlled by the government.

The March 2014 announcement dates back to a decision made by then President George W. Bush back in 2005, when the US participated in a conference in Tunisia organized by the UN, to attempt to bridge the gap between Internet haves and have-nots. In that conference, America was in consensus and agreed that ICANN's duties should eventually be transferred from US control hands to some global body with the full authority to manage Internet governance.

The European Commission advocated less U.S. centric Internet governance from 2009 and made the offer to become the "honest broker" in the transition as a new Internet governance emerged. In the US there was some concern that by ceding control, the US guaranteed that the process could end in Internet anarchy.

China is a country of over 500 million Internet users and is constantly coming up with more sophisticated ways of censoring the web and monitoring its users. Some techniques involve blocking IP addresses and filtering keywords and search terms. The number of countries and states that censor the Internet in some manner has increased substantially in recent years—from single digits to over 40 states today (according to the Open Net Initiative). While some of the worst cases are predictable - China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia - some of the increase occurs in western countries including some in the European Union (EU).

Western technology companies produce and export surveillance equipment that allows governments to retain data and spy on its own citizens. The surveillance industry has been estimated to be worth $5 billion per year, with much of this technology being for export. The University of Toronto Munk School published research showing how Bahraini activists have been targeted using FinFisher, a piece of software sold by the UK-based company Gamma Group.

In democratic states as well as authoritarian ones, user rights have fallen behind legal powers, leading to abuse. Paid commentators and state-endorsed hacking attacks are both on the rise. For example, in Russia, massive DDoS attacks and smear campaigns against activists have intensified. In Pakistan, there have been attempts to ban encryption and virtual private networks (VPNs). Mobile phone communications were cut off for a day in the Balochistan province. In Egypt and Azerbaijan, mobile phones and social media (used to share information and organize) are still under vigorous surveillance, and bandwidth speeds have been throttled to reduce access.

While the transfer was mostly a back burner issue for many people for years (we knew it had been pending) it became a political hot issue towards the end in 2016. Then Presidential candidates Cruz and Trump (among others) made claims that it would undermine the whole of the web. Proponents of the change noted that very little will changed after the handover. All things being equal the symbolism was huge. Many now see it as the internet belonging to everyone.

Time for a reality check.

The transfer does NOT give countries like China and Russia control over IANA—let alone the entire Web. Both countries are members of an existing ICANN committee called the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). The GAC provides advice to ICANN and can force the board that controls ICANN's to vote on proposals, but adoption of such a vote requires a consensus from the entire GAC, so no one nation can force policy changes without support of the rest of the other member states. The board still has the power to vote down the GAC's proposals. Further, because ICANN is based in California, it still falls under US law, just like US companies like Verisign that handle domain name registration under contract from ICANN.

Corruption is always possible. Bribery of the board members of the ICANN into taking on particular policy positions is a remote possiblity, but the board is elected by outside organizations comprised of businesses, non-profits, and Internet users from around the globe. These organizations can force the recall individual board members, or even the entire board. In theory, this more than provides appropriate checks and balances that will keep control of both ICANN and IANA from falling into the hands of any one country, company or organization.

The transfer of IANA to ICANN has been more of a formality than any real change in policy, however it's an important formality. Just the fact that the US government had final say over the domain name system (DNS) never sat well with the rest of the world, especially considering the 2013 Edward Snowden revelation about the scope of US Internet surveillance. Cutting that last tie tie to the US allows foreign governments and companies to have confidence that the Internet is finally outside of the US's control.

comic: Chinese man at computer viewing Uncle Sam viewing a screen of the Chinese man viewing...
Figure 5. Heng, China's Hackers.
Credit: The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, February 25, 2013.

Listen to the Experts

The real power of information comes when it is open and accessible to everyone. There remain many core questions that need reexamination – for example, if someone connects to the Internet in a place like China or Saudi Arabia, will they have (or even be allowed to have) the same experience and be able to access the same information as someone connecting from Canada or the US? The NGO "Fight for the Future and Access" collaborated on a short, informative video about a serious threat to the free and open Internet that could have devastating effects for human rights and free expression around the globe.

How the ITU could put the internet behind closed doors
Click here for transcript of the How the ITU could put the internet behind closed doors video.

PRESENTER: The internet gives us the freedom to talk with friends, make art, start a business, or speak out against our governments, all on an unprecedented scale. This isn't a coincidence. The internet's design came out of open, inclusive discussions by a global community of scientists and engineers. So there was no pressure from above to lock it down. 

But now, a government controlled international body is making a play to become the new place where the internet's future gets decided. It's called the International Telecommunication Union or ITU. And in December, the world's governments will meet to decide whether to expand its mandate to making important decisions about the net. 

The ITU could pose a risk to freedom of expression online everywhere. Here's why. First, the basics, nobody owns the internet. It's a collection of independent networks around the world. Anybody can build one. The common standards on which the internet was built grew out of open, online discussions, not on the priorities of a particular government or company. 

But now, let's meet the ITU. First, the ITU is old, really old. Not CDs old, not rotary phone old, telegraph old, as in Morse code. When founded in 1865, it was called the International Telegraph Union. Unlike the internet, the ITU was not built on open discussions among scientists and engineers. Instead, only governments have a vote at the ITU. And these votes take place behind closed doors. If governments succeed in giving the ITU more power to make decisions about the internet, we get an old school, top down, government-centric organization replacing the open, bottom up governance that made the internet so world changing. And that's just the beginning of our problems. 

The ITU is not transparent. The ITU's draft proposals aren't public. And it's one country, one vote model gives governments all the power. They get to make decisions about our internet without us even knowing what they're discussing, and then tell us once the decision is made. 

What kinds of decisions will be considered at the ITU meeting this December? Well, here are some actual proposals that have leaked. Cutting off internet access for a number of broadly defined reasons, violating international human rights norms, giving governments more power to monitor internet traffic and impose regulations on how traffic is sent, defining spam so broadly that they could justify blocking anything from photos of cute cats to human rights campaigns, and new rules to charge online content providers to reach users, which could mean less content going to the developing world and blocking sites that don't pay up. But the really scary part, the countries pushing hardest for ITU control are the same countries that aggressively censor the internet. 

In Russia, making a YouTube video against the government can get you two years in jail. In China, you can't even get to most social media websites. And Iran is trying to build its own national internet and email network to keep the entire population under its control. 

Now the ITU also does good work. They help the developing world establish telecommunication networks and expand high speed broadband connections. And existing internet governance isn't perfect. The US has outsized influence and authority when it comes to this. 

But we need to fix these problems in a way that preserves the openness, pragmatism, and bottom up governance that made the internet so great. This December, our governments meet to make their final decisions about the internet's future. It's up to us internet users in every country of the world to tell them to stand for the open internet. If everyone who sees this video speaks out and contacts their government, we've got a chance of winning. 

Help us share this video and visit this site to speak out and contact your government right now. Let's use the internet's global reach to save it. Tell your leaders to oppose handing over key decisions about the internet to the ITU. 


Credit: Fight for the Future

There was a great deal of outrage over SOPA and PIPA in 2012. On February 27, 2012, many globalists engaged in a “diplomatic process” that was designed to hand over of the Internet to the United Nations. Many countries want such a move to happen including Russia and China. Vladimir Putin stated that his goal is to impose “international control over the Internet” via the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a treaty-based organization under the UN.

The ITU has been working to globalize the entire radio spectrum, latest-generation wireless technologies, aeronautical and maritime navigation, radio astronomy, satellite-based meteorology along with the internet. Its position is for control of next-generation networks, the potential technology that will replace the current free and open internet as we know it today.

China and Russia have stated they want to renegotiate the 1988 treaty that deregulated and decentralized the internet. In a Feb 2012 article, the Wall Street Journal noted that the 1988 treaty “insulated the Internet from economic and technical regulation and quickly became the greatest deregulatory success story of all time.”

The proposed ITU treaty would radically modify the internet and bring it under control of the UN. Additionally it would impose cyber security mandates, outlaw peer-to-peer technologies and impose economic regulations such as mandates for rates, terms and conditions. It would also potentially allow multinational corporations to charge fees for “international” internet traffic possibly even on a “per-click” basis for some web destinations. The article further stated that some governments are “threatened by popular outcries for political freedom that are empowered by unfettered Internet connectivity. They have formed impressive coalitions, and their efforts have progressed significantly.”