GEOG 479
Cyber-Geography in Geospatial Intelligence

Control of Information in the Future


Control of Information in the Future

Earlier in the course we discussed the transition of control of ICAAN from the United States and all the policy issues that were discussed with the transition from national to international control. This begs a bigger question - are the current existing international institutions, such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), positioned to meet these public policy challenges, or should other options be considered in order to bring the international framework into some type of more realistic alignment with the emergent changes in society being empowered by ICTs?

World leadership from most countries continues to convene to discuss these issues. Should an international body such as the UN should be in charge of running the Internet? Are they capable of doing so in an unbiased manner? The Internet was invented in the US and as such reflects the values of an open society organized around openness and good governance. Turning the control of it over to the UN would be a huge departure from the current model.

Many developing nations have complained that the world's most visible Internet governance body, ICANN, still doesn't adequately represent their interests and should be scrapped in favor of a group allied under the auspices of the UN. Most of the underlying architecture (around 85%) is controlled by the U.S. private sector. Is it even really realistic to discuss handing this architecture and infrastructure over to the UN?

The structure of the Internet transcends national borders and engages a wide range of actors in its continued development and ongoing management. Traditional cultural and national boundaries are constantly challenged, and so its governance has to be based on both formal mechanisms and evolving ones in order to capitalize on the power and economic opportunities it provides while  also providing resilience and privacy for all Internet users.

According to a 2016 report by the Centre for International Governance Innovation and The Royal Institute for International Affairs, we face three possible Internet futures.

A Dangerous and Broken Cyberspace

The worst-case future is one where the Internet breaks. Here the costs imposed through the malicious actions of criminals and inadvertent effects of government regulation of the Internet are so high so as to be counter productive. Governments impose restrictions further fragmenting the Internet and violate basic human rights of privacy. The proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT) into all aspects of our lives is accompanied by unprecedented private data collection and government surveillance, that destroys user privacy and presents new opportunities for criminal breaches in cyber security and even the possibility of cyberwarf, including attacks on civilian infrastructure, (i.e. power grids or water systems).

The cost of cybercrime in 2016 has been estimated as high as $445 billion. As high as that is, it could potentially could grow as high as two trillion dollars a year by 2019. In this dystopian future, newly connected users are easy targets for commercial exploitation, fraud and cybercrime. Proprietary data and personal information are stolen and reused; online and other critical services are disrupted electronically; complete systems are erased or otherwise compromised and malicious actors often remain undetected despite high levels of activity. Invasive privacy violations and online abuse, whether as a result of massive corporate data collection or unrestrained government or private surveillance, discourage Internet use. Users become increasingly wary of the secretive ways that algorithms collect data on their "preferences", and by whom.

In this future people simply stop using the network and its potential is lost.

Uneven and Unequal Gains

The second possible future is one of stunted growth, where some are ableto capture a disproportionate share of “digital dividends” while others are permanently at a disadvantage. National governments don't preserve the Internet’s openness, they don't enable competition and they don't encourage the private sector to expand high-speed access. The end result - more than three billion people left off-line. A world of digital haves and have-nots continues to grow and increases inequality and unrest across the globe. The economic value of the Internet is compromised by governments failing to respond appropriately to the challenges of the digital era, choosing instead to assert national control through trade barriers, data localization and censorship and by adopting other techniques that further "Balkanize" the Web in ways that staunch the free flow of goods, services, capital and data. The costs of this more optimistic scenario could be immense.

The Balkanization of the network leads to reductions in national GDPs of greater than 1% per year, coupled with a reduction in domestic investment of more than 4%, reductions in exports and aggregate losses that range into the hundreds of billions of dollars. The fragmented Internet impinges upon user’s rights of free expression, privacy and access to knowledge. Collaboration is minimized becuase of overly restrictive intellectual property regimes that limit knowledge sharing resulting in a stifling of innovation. The world will muddle on but a great deal is lost and many in the poorer nations are left behind.

Broad, Unprecedented Progress

In the third future, the Internet is energetic, growing and robust. It provides unprecedented opportunities for equality, social justice, human rights, access to information and knowledge, growth, development and innovation. The Information revolution of the past three decades has already changed the nature of communication and commerce for more than three billion global users, and its economic impacts and productivity benefits continue to spread far beyond the estimated $6.3 trillion — or 8% of global GDP — that the Internet contributed in 2014. The expansion of both fixed and mobile broadband penetration brings billions of new users online, narrowing digital, physical, economic and educational divides. The IoT, now pervasive, leads to the secure interconnection of devices, plausibly resulting in GDP growth of up to $11.1 trillion by 2025.

The creation of interconnected smart cities improves the quality of life for much of the world’s population, while helping to reduce carbon emissions. Global societies and economies begin to realize the opportunities for transformation made possible  by the adoption of new Internet-enabled technologies such as driverless cars, distributed digital ledgers and three-dimensional (3D) printing. Internet-supported distributed energy production and consumption networks deliver greater energy efficiency and support widespread conversion to renewable energy. The use of distributed ledger and blockchain technologies provides globally circulated, trusted records and transfers of value to deliver a wide range of services. Most developed economies with aging populations find new sources of productivity, as the elderly live longer lives and enjoy greater health. Government and industry act as partners across borders to manage the risks of online activity. This is the future which most of the world aspires to, but technology alone will not achieve it. Getting to this future requires concrete actions to ensure that the Internet will be open, secure, trustworthy and inclusive.

Thought Question: Are the national interests of countries like Russia and China served in an open information environment? Does a government have an interest in monitoring social media for problems? A group of "volunteers" in Malaysia seems to think so.

The wording of this provision would allow a country to repress political opposition while citing a U.N. treaty as the legal basis for doing so. According to one analysis, the provision appears to contradict Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says people shall have the right to access information "through any media and regardless of frontiers."

An amended treaty would be binding on the United States if it is ratified by the Senate, but approval is not automatic, and, in fact, the US led a collection of nations to boycott the treaty that was adopted. (Read: Will UN regulate the Internet? Battle for net freedom nears.)

Realistically, when we examine the facts, the true situation is not new.

  • There is no sudden UN or ITU effort to take over the Internet. There is, instead, a longstanding struggle between the commercial and states at the national and international level. The 2012 WCIT is just the latest episode. Control over content is the real issue.
  • There is no evidence of any recent enlargement of the political support for states and inter-governmental institutions such as ITU. The same players are taking the same positions that they always have. There may even be erosion of support for inter-governmentalism.
  • The ITU is a paper tiger. No international development has strengthened or approved ITU efforts to gain control of pieces of the Internet since 1996.
  • Intergovernmentalism is a fading ideology. While developing countries and BRICs still resent US economic and political preeminence and tend to view intergovernmental institutions as a way to address those resentments, they have been persistently unsuccessful in reasserting governmental control over the Internet in transnational institutions. Civil society and business within those countries are divided – they do not always support their governments’ efforts. Most Internet-related activists are on the side of denationalized, multistakeholder governance.
  • The biggest threats are at the national level. Nations that include not only India, China, and Russia, but the US, Great Britain, and other Western democracies have taken steps to impose regulations and controls on the Internet insofar as they can within their territorial jurisdiction. If the world’s governments lock down the Internet nationally and then agree on how to control it globally, it would be a game changer. So far, we are a long way away from any type of agreement on the issue, and technology continues to evolve that makes such discussions irrelevant.

During a December 2012, meeting, the ITU passed on a show of hands vote a measure that allows countries the right to monitor international communications that flow across the Internet and into their country. In spite of diplomatic efforts of the United States and 80 other countries (among who were the UK, Australia, Canada, Egypt, Japan, and the Netherlands who opposed this measure) the ITU passed "Y.2770" (Y.2770 can be downloaded here) that is referred to as “Requirements for Deep Packet Inspection.” This effectively allows each country’s right to implement monitoring (reading and possible filtering/censoring) capabilities for international traffic over the Internet, including e-mails, text messages, financial transactions, and VoIP calls.

Offshoring Labor - A Race to the Bottom?

For decades, major corporations have been outsourcing and offshoring jobs. Work flowed from developed economies to less developed ones, where wages were lower and regulations were fewer. US citizens lost jobs, and Asians, South Americans, and Africans became employed.

The nature of these processes means that business activities have to be on a certain scale to be outsourced. You can outsource a contract to staff a help-desk that expects thousands of calls daily, but you can’t easily get a small website built or a single recording transcribed.

This has changed due to the creation of digital work marketplaces. Platforms like,, and facilitate the auctioning of work. Clients post tasks to be performed and workers bid on them. Labor essentially becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold in hourly segments and by task – with no benefits.

Mark Graham from the Oxford Information Institute (OII) has studied this phenomena. He analyzed massive amounts of transaction data from the world’s largest online work marketplaces, and interviewed about 150 digital workers in Asia and Africa.

One of the most noteworthy results in his research is that workers often underbid each other on online platforms: thus driving down the labor costs to employers. This happens because there seems to be an imbalance between the supply and demand of work.

Platforms force workers to look at each other’s bids and thus heightens competition for the work. Many workers have stories about the other workers on the other side of the world who can easily replace them if they aren’t competitive – i.e. cheap.

One case involves a Nigerian worker quoted as:

“Most people, most Filipinos, they work for 50 cents. It’s so embarrassing. You’re a professional. You know how to do this job…It’s really affecting those ones that know how to do the job”.

Not surprisingly, Filipinos have similar stories about workers elsewhere in cheaper labor markets. The net result is a downwards pressure on wages.

What should be done? Should anything be done?

What sort of response should developed economies have, led by by Western workers, politicians, and trade unions?

Do nothing?  We might accept that if an African worker performs a task for a US or UK  client, then the service is accepted and performed in Africa – and is thus governed by the labor laws and standards that operate in the country where the work is done.

Who benefits if work is easily bought and sold across borders? Employers or workers?

Another option is to reconsider the geography of work. We might rethink where the service is actually provided. Maybe the case can be made that the task performed by an African worker for a foreign client was carried out in the country of the client. Maybe we can apply some type of minimum labor standards (e.g. working time, discrimination law, health and safety, pregnancy and maternity protection etc.) to all contracts issued by Western corporations. Western employers can’t simply treat Western workers like disposable commodities, so why should they be able to do so with a Rwandan-based worker? Or should they?

This strategy becomes more realistic when we realize that although the supply of work in digital labor markets is truly globalized, there is no reflected demand for it. Very few countries in Western Europe and North America are home to the majority of employers. This presents a strategic bottlenecks where minimum standards might be enforced.

Easy to propose – hard to implement. Consider jobs that require a worker to perform an administrative task such as writing a letter, or filling out a form. It’s true that thinking about what maternity protection means in that sort of context makes little sense, but, it’s also true that many digital workers end up working for months or even years for the same employer: and it is for those workers that we need better protections.

We already have laws that govern how to ensure that a fair wage is paid. If we can already figure out how workers who are paid on a “per item” basis can earn at least a minimum wage, then the next logical step is to do the same for a digital worker writing a blog or an article.

Should a Rwandan worker be paid a Western worker’s minimum wage? This is a valid question but doesn’t mean that we don’t need any wage standards. Can we envision a law that requires employers to pay workers a living wage wherever they are resident?

The handful of countries with the most demand for digital work aren’t the only bottlenecks that are strategically useful. The platforms themselves are also a bottleneck. All of the major ones are based in the US, Australia, UK or Israel. Like the way that temp agencies are regulated to ensure their workers are paid minimum wages maybe digital work platforms should be expected to do the same.

Potential for a “race to the bottom”?

We can't go back to our pre-globalized world of work

It’s worth remembering that about 3.5 billion people are on the internet. Most of whom live in low-wage economies, and many of them are able to compete for digital jobs. At the moment, the millions of workers who perform digital work do so in a mostly unregulated fashion. While this benefits those workers who today are able to underbid others, the status quo points to a race to the bottom for the world’s workers, especially since tens of millions of new internet users join the global network and thus the global digital workforce annually.

We will never return to a pre-globalized world of work, but this doesn’t have to  mean that we should be satisfied with a digital wild west in which workers are left to totally fend for themselves. As transnational labor becomes ever more the norm, expectations should change. Instead of imagining digital work as being undertaken in a digital space (in the cloud), beyond the realm of regulation, let’s remember it all happens somewhere.

Digital labor has a geography, and digital laborers live in real places.