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.



Barry 12.14.12 at 1:55 pm

At the risk of threadjacking:

“Even a stopped clock tells the right time, twice a day.)”

If a clock is stopped, you disregard it utterly; it’s useless.
Being right twice a day means being wrong 99% of the time.

The only data ever given by the WSJ editorial page is equivalent to the contents of the Pravda editorial page, in the sense that a skilled reader might figure out what political fights are going on.


swearyanthony 12.14.12 at 3:42 pm

Good. As flawed as the current models are, the suggested replacements from the ITU ranged from terrible to hilariously why-would-you-think-that-was-a-good-idea awful.


swearyanthony 12.14.12 at 3:49 pm

Oops, hit submit too soon. Bear in mind the ITU utterly missed the boat as far as the Internet goes, instead proposing the dreadful OSI protocols (that today only live on in the form of faded sarcastic tshirts mocking them). Why anyway, anywhere, treats them with any form of respect is beyond me. A correct response to any ITU proposal is a picture of Grumpy Cat with a disdainful caption.

The ITU completely missed the most important revolution in telecommunications in the last 50 years. Worse, they opposed it and tried to undermine it at every opportunity. They bring nothing to the table. I’m not a black-helicopters-omg-UN-agencies-are-coming-for-our-golf-courses person in general, but for the ITU I will make an exception. Shut the whole thing down.


mpowell 12.14.12 at 4:01 pm

So I read the article in the economist. As far as I can tell the conclusion was that the Americans refused to give any concessions to those governments that would like to increase their power to censor the internet. Well they did this largely for selfish reasons. So? Its hard for me to understand how this was a disaster. Perhaps you could explain that part.


McTim 12.14.12 at 5:08 pm


This is by far the most balanced piece I’ve read so far (and I’ve read dozens).

Keep it up!


MattF 12.14.12 at 5:13 pm

I’m with @swearyanthony in recalling that the ITU’s history on these questions is somewhere in the zone between ridiculous and malevolent. This ITU meeting was useful in so far as it allowed one to identify the enemies of the free flow of information, and that’s about it.


Karl Narveson 12.14.12 at 6:12 pm


Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

With “upon” the line is unmetrical.


Don 12.14.12 at 6:49 pm

….proposing the dreadful OSI protocols (that today only live on in the form of faded sarcastic tshirts mocking them…

This is so sad. After working on the awesome-osity that was TP4 (in the kernel because that’s how we rolled) and the email delight that was x.400, we get shown the Grumpy Cat? I need all the kids off my lawn, now!



Maria 12.14.12 at 7:07 pm

Thanks, Karl – fixed that.

Barry, your comment reminds me of something Henry said about the Italian newspapers a few years ago – that they have little actual news and seem impenetrable, but once you learn to read them, are a quite fascinating enactment of various bunfights.

Swearyanthony – yes, the sure way to make a techie friend look like she/he’s just bitten down on a lemon is to mention those failed protocols.

Thanks, McTim!

Hi mpowell, I think it’s a disaster for the ITU for a start. I don’t support how they’ve gone about this, and think the leadership is constitutionally incapable of even *getting* how they just don’t get the Internet or what was so bad about what they’ve been doing. But the organisation does good and important work in a lot of fields, especially the ITU-D side. Funnily enough, I was giving a talk yesterday at, and met a guy who speaks very highly of their work on radio. In my limited experience, there are a lot of really smart and committed middle-ranking ITU people that are doing their best and, even, some good. And, I just think it’s a bad thing when an organisation that could and should be doing a lot of good at the more strategic level gets side-tracked so bad it doesn’t even know it’s on the wrong side of the road.

It’s also a disaster because, although right now it seems like ITU is holed below the waterline by having horribly overstepped its mark, we will see a lot of the language in the treaty pop up in international forums and national legislation, where it can do a lot of harm. Insidious-sounding, maybe, but Russia (and China – who’ve not been hogging the limelight but have seen their agenda pressed forward) will propagate that language everywhere it can, from more negotiations next summer to the ITU plenipot in 2014. These guys are playing a long game, and as far as they’re concerned if the ITU itself is a casualty, well hey, tant pis.

I may have been a little unkind about the US delegation. I think its leadership’s heart was in the right place and they did actually make concessions, and seem genuinely upset it didn’t all work out. But it seems like some of the large number of industry people they brought along just don’t get that it’s a problem for the rest of the world that the US seems to have hung onto the reins of and most of the profits from the Internet.


Randolph 12.14.12 at 7:41 pm

My snarky comment, when I linked it: “In which the USA comes out as pro-surveillance and pro-spammer, Russia comes out as a pack of lying, spying trolls, and no-one wants to pay their telephone bills.”

To which I will add that there is a faction in the USA that is as controlling as any Russian or Chinese faction. A worrisome possibility is that these factions will form a coalition.

Maria, what do you see as the real issues in the international internet? What might a realistic treaty usefully address?


Maria 12.14.12 at 8:22 pm

Hmm, Randolph. That’s a really good question. My first response is that this treaty was a solution in search of a problem. But then I think, that’s exactly what someone Western and privileged with lots of lovely Internet would think, and who’s relatively sanguine about the downsides of the Internet. I tend to see international treaty negotiations as a further pitch for particular countries to tighten their domestic grip on the Internet domestically, so I’ve not really sat down and thought about what, if anything, a treaty could usefully do.

On the face of it, a treaty could help bolster internet access. But in practice I think a lot of the development goals poorer countries have might be better addressed by a more financially disinterested approach to telecoms liberalisation, say, rather than an international treaty full of nice words. So I’m not even sure that the good work I’d like to see done can be done via a treaty.

But that’s a really thought-provoking question you’ve raised, and thinking about it makes me feel that my viewpoint is perhaps too privileged and narrow. I will think on it some more.


Doctor Memory 12.14.12 at 8:46 pm

It’s rare and not a little bit disconcerting to find myself allied with the black helicopter crowd on this one, but so be it: this was a series of terrible ideas promoted in a forthrightly terrible way by a series of almost entirely terrible people, and it is a goddamned relief to watch it all come to nothing.


jpe 12.14.12 at 10:16 pm

if it ain’t broke…..


mrearl 12.14.12 at 10:40 pm

A resolution “To foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet”, backed by China, Russia, and many Arab countries. Was that the Economist or The Onion?


Tony Lynch 12.15.12 at 12:17 am

mpowell, think hard about the us and the internet and freedom… (you might even like to look around you)


Nick 12.15.12 at 1:07 am

The (essentially) free internet is perhaps the best result that American jurisprudence has ever produced, for the US and for the rest of world. Obviously, there are bad things about it but its just so very great and works so well as it stands that you’ve got to wonder about the intentions of those that want to overturn it, even just to tweak the set-up.


John Quiggin 12.15.12 at 5:35 am

“The (essentially) free internet is perhaps the best result that American jurisprudence has ever produced, for the US and for the rest of world”

Free, that is, unless you do or say something the US Administration doesn’t like. It seems a bit precious to be denouncing the Russians when (as far as anyone can tell) the US government is recording and storing every communication that goes on the Internet, and using its control over providers like Twitter and Facebook to harass, arrest and disappear its real and perceived enemies.

(I see Tony Lynch is hinting at the same point)


Salient 12.15.12 at 7:47 am

Thanks for the ongoing Internet-related reporting, Maria, it’s incisive. I read some of the BBC reporting and found it to be completely opaque. I’ll look forward to reading more thoughts along the lines of what Rudolph asked about (I think there could be considerable meaningful overlap there with the topic of envisioning real utopias, too).

the US government is recording and storing every communication that goes on the Internet, and using its control over providers like Twitter and Facebook to harass, arrest and disappear its real and perceived enemies.

Worth adding to the list–the US government has been strongarming credit card companies into not disbursing funds to people and companies and organizations that the US government does not like, choking off funding without really having the formal authority to do so. Wikileaks being the example that comes to mind, but I vaguely remember there being lots of other orgs getting this treatment.

But still, maybe Nick is resonating with a point that Atrios is (justifiably) always on about, that the Internet could have developed into a content delivery vehicle somewhat like cable TV, but somehow didn’t; comparatively the wealth and expansiveness of user-generated content is very great, and we really do “got to wonder about the intentions of those that want to overturn it, even just to tweak the set-up.” We might not have any idea just how resilient or fragile the existing suite of Internet freedoms is, and the US police state isn’t the only agent attempting to undermine it.


Sebastian H 12.15.12 at 9:14 am

John, I’m not sure I understand your point in context. Do you just want it on record that the US isn’t perfectly virtuous re the Internet? Or are you suggesting that letting Russia and China get their hands on creating and maintaining world wide protocols would somehow make things better?


Guido Nius 12.15.12 at 11:47 am

If the ITU & governments had created the internet there might be a real risk they would be able to contain it. But they didn’t and all of that ITU stuff is as relevant to the internet as ISDN standards are. They may make themselves a nuisance but, in the long run, it will be at most a footnote.


novakant 12.15.12 at 12:23 pm

“not perfectly virtuous” is not the right description for a surveillance state that would have given Erich Mielke wet dreams


Mao Cheng Ji 12.15.12 at 1:18 pm

I suspect international standards would not be directed against internal surveillance (which is, after all, internal), but rather against Stuxnet-style cross border attacks.


Sebastian H 12.15.12 at 4:23 pm

If you want to complain about US electronic era snooping, and I’m perfectly willing to, the email tracking without regard to warrants problem seems like a better place to focus. But in this context I don’t see how ‘international oversight’ means anything but even worse snooping PLUS bonus censorship.


Watson Ladd 12.15.12 at 5:04 pm

Mao, there really is no difference. China doesn’t want to censor the NY Times. Rather they want to be able to control the conditions under which their citizens access it. Demanding the shutdown of anonymity providers under the guise of internet security strengthens their ability to censor effectively while retaining the economic benefits of the internet.


SusanC 12.15.12 at 5:14 pm

The ITU may be more inclined to build networks with built-in interception capabilities than the IETF. The IETF has traditionally been pretty hostile to the idea of building in back-door access for the government, while traditional telephone service often has built in facilities for government access. A quick web search found ETSI standards for government intercept access; I can’t recall offhand how deeply ITU is already in the business of building in government backdoors.

I suspect this may come down to the economics of where the money is coming from. Government-owned telcos are easy for the government to lean on to provide intercept capability. For a typical Internet company, on the other hand, government interception is just a cost and a source of risk with little or no upside.


SusanC 12.15.12 at 5:20 pm

Add to that: for Google, violating the user’s privacy in order to deliver more targetted advertising is a source of profit, so you’ld trust them even less than a government-owned telco. (And it was the no-longer-government-owned BT that brought you Phorm – illegal interception for commercial gain).


Nick 12.15.12 at 5:33 pm

‘Free, that is, unless you do or say something the US Administration doesn’t like.’

Is the way the internet is setup really responsible for that, or is it the way the internet is setup that infuriates states of all sorts and makes them go ballistic? Take one the horrendous examples, the US treatment of bradley manning: part of what made it such a big deal for the US was all those secrets being available to anyone instantly and utterly unstoppably. Hence their reaction was to do the only thing they could and punish Manning as much as possible. Its because of their relative total lack of power over the internet that makes them so nasty in areas where they still have control.


Watson Ladd 12.15.12 at 6:33 pm

Using the Internet = Dropping postcards in the mail. No one expects that postcards are private. If you care about privacy of communications, use SSL.


Randolph 12.15.12 at 6:50 pm

Watson, SSL is also an internet protocol, one that is regulated in many parts of the world. See the map, “Summary of domestic crypto controls” at There were other subjects, but at base, extending these controls internationally seems to have been the goal of Russia and China in this dispute. The USA, on the other hand, seems to have wanted to extend its domestic internet regime internationally, where there is little specific regulation, but extensive data-mining and surveillance, both governmental and by numerous private individuals and organizations. On the US internet, Facebook is the book that reads you and, it seems, everyone can hear you whisper.

Did the EU raise any of its privacy concerns in this dispute?


Randolph 12.15.12 at 6:58 pm

Guido Nuis, the internet is a government creation. All the early work was government-funded, as well as a fair amount of current work. The Wikipedia history of the internet is a not-bad introduction to this:


John Quiggin 12.16.12 at 12:21 am

@Sebastian: I agree, the ITU could only have made things worse. But, as the OP says, Americans may not realise how laughable the US Administration looks when it starts posturing about human rights, freedom of speech and so on.

@Randolph: Most of the real work was done with public funding, or by publicly funded academics, but without any central direction from government. So, although the government footed the bills one way or another, it did not set out to create the Internet (Al Gore’s High Performance Computing Act was a significant contributor, but the bits were already being put together well before it passed).


Randolph 12.16.12 at 1:50 am

@John Quiggin, as a sometime US government researcher, I can say that it’s not that simple; the funding agencies exercise considerable authority over the direction of research. No-one set out to create the internet the way no-one asked for the GUI: no-one knew it was a good idea, or even what it was good for, until prototypes were operating. But all along the way there were opportunities to direct the research, or stop it entirely.


Guido Nius 12.16.12 at 11:17 am

@30/32: there were abundant opportunities to direct or stop the research but in the end human beings invented what we have. Some governments may want to bottle it all up, but it is too late, no amount of patchwork can undo what is done. Maybe governments didn’t seize upon their opportunities because governments are not that intrinsically bad as they are generally made out to be (being made up of human beings and all). Anyway, the sheer amount of data generated by people working out their creativity is well beyond what this or that government can control (again if governments are simplified into being seen as their bad ass elements only).

One can link to wikipedia as much as one wants, the definitive truth is not there ;-)


Hermenauta 12.16.12 at 11:24 am

@John Quiggin, if I remember correctly there is a book by Lessig that tolds a lot about the invention of the internet for military purposes _ specifically, to allow a more robust means of communication than the POTS (plain old telephone service), that was seen as prone to damage inflicted by, let´s say, nuclear war. Hence the DARPA funding. We must be aware of all internet traditions. :)


Zen Punk 12.16.12 at 3:46 pm



The phrase “bad-ass” has a different meaning than you seem to have ascribed to it. It’s used informally to connote toughness, macho, serious and strong qualities.


Randolph 12.16.12 at 4:04 pm

[After some reflection, I ended up with these thoughts. I regard them as speculative. And yet…]

Anarchist and EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow once said, “In cyberspace, the [US constitution’s] first amendment [which guarantees freedom of speech and the press] is a local ordinance” Indeed, all national laws are. The much-put-upon Fourth Amendment, which protects personal privacy and property, is likewise a local ordinance. Our national laws which protect privacy and defend against surveillance, data mining, stalking, and theft-of-service are none of them enforceable across national borders on the internet as it has become. Nor are laws which promote internet access, nor any intellectual property law, even the most reasonable. The internet routinely crosses borders. There is thus an emerging body of international law in this area, and it is ad hoc and made by an undemocratic process.

The Russian and Chinese ITU proposal was a fairly plain power grab, but the US response was an attempt to maintain unjust power. If the internet is a world network, I can see no ethical justification for keeping control of critical elements in the hands of one country. Yet one of the problems of federal systems is a vulnerability to factions acting in bad faith, and this is what Russia and China hoped to take advantage of.

I’ve formed an opinion: I think we do need international law created by a democratic process governing the internet. I see at least three reasons for this. (1) To establish human rights of communication and privacy. (2) To maintain the integrity of the international internet. (3) To make it possible to do justice on the internet.


Zen Punk 12.16.12 at 8:42 pm


I agree with you that international law created by a democratic process is the ideal, but the problem is that the agents of the UN are the states of the world, not the peoples of the world. As it stands, I think US hegemony in this field is preferable to the likely alternatives. How would we go about promoting a democratic process that wouldn’t hand power to actors working in bad faith like China, Syria, etc.?


The Raven 12.17.12 at 10:03 pm

@37: Isn’t that the question, though? This seems to be a problem of federalism generally: consider how destructive state governments within the USA can be.

Comments on this entry are closed.