Playing Russian Roulette with the Internet

by Maria on December 14, 2012

Yesterday, the US, UK and a dozen other countries refused point blank to sign a UN treaty on the Internet. About twenty more are making very negative noises about it, saying they need to go back to their capitals to discuss. The two thirds of countries who did support it, led by Russia, have no way to enforce or even – for many of them are struggling to build and maintain basic communications infrastructure – to implement it.

I’ve been meaning to write something about the International Telecommunication Union negotiations in Dubai, not least because I helped out in a small way with getting the International Trade Union Confederation and Greenpeace involved. But time and events kept rushing past, and other people did it better, particularly Jack Goldsmith’s ‘opinionated primer’.

But if anyone wants to catch up, the BBC has done excellent, incisive and factual pieces from the beginning. And for a decent analysis of yesterday’s debacle and how the US acted and is perceived, the Economist is pretty much on the money.

Predictably, much US commentary has reverted to type with ‘bureaucrats = bad; UN bureaucrats = the work of the devil’. For amusingly unhinged opinion, you could do worse than the WSJ which proclaimed that “Letting the Internet be rewired by bureaucrats would be like handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla“. That said, the WSJ isn’t entirely wrong. (Even a stopped clock tells the right time, twice a day.)

This has been a process where everyone played to type, from the ugly Americans with the 120 person delegation and pathological inability to understand how they are perceived; to the shifty Russians leaking, denying, defending, introducing, withdrawing and reintroducing oppressive proposals; to NGOs and the techies who built the Internet fuming (rightly) at being excluded from discussing it; to the ITU Sec. Gen. making one disingenuous, self-serving and patently wrong claim after the next; to a Chair who thinks because he’s on Twitter, the whole process is open; to, finally, an Iranian determined to force a vote to embarrass the West, and who brought the whole house of cards down on top of everyone.

But you really had to be there to appreciate the shambolic, dishonest, catastrophic failure of the whole thing. My thanks to Kieren McCarthy who braved it and reports from the rubble:

“Mistake piled on mistake and yet the ITU seemed incapable of responding, relying on member states to arrive at their own solutions and ignoring civil society, the technical community and even hundreds of thousands of concerned global citizens that took to online petitions to express their disgust at decisions being made over the Internet in closed, government groups.

In the end, the ITU and the conference chair, having backed themselves to the edge of a cliff, dared governments to push them off. They duly did. And without even peeking over, the crowd turned around and walked away.”

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.