Meanwhile on the Internet

While the world was preoccupied with the shutdown last week, the United States Government sustained another blow. In the Internet governance arena, the federal government suffered a setback from which it is unlikely bounce back for a long time. A series of three events all culminated in one major development – the loss of American dominance in global Internet governance.

Our story begins on October 10th, with the quiet resignation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) from the Global Network Initiative (GNI). By way of background, the GNI was a seminal breakthrough in Internet policymaking, bringing together tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft and prominent NGOs, such as the EFF, to collaborate and develop progressive policy recommendations for the Web. The EFFs resignation marked the end of what might have been the most promising avenue for privacy and civil liberties reform on the Internet, shot down by the EFF’s realization ‘that affected companies are unable even to talk about secret orders they have received from the US government’. The backdrop for dissent has now been set, bringing us to our next crucial event.

On October 11th, the Internet Corporation for Domain Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international body that oversees the operations of the Internet, announced that it would reject the US Department of Commerce’s direct oversight of its activities, bucking almost 30 years of US leadership in Internet governance. ICANN was also joined by all five of the world’s regional Internet registries in its move away from American oversight.

One day later came the news that Fadi Chehadi, the President and CEO of ICANN and the man with the US government’s backing, had sought out an alliance with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, urging her to step up Brazil’s involvement in the regulation and governance of the Internet. Seeking to set up a ‘new model of governance in which all are equal’, Chehadi had in one fell swoop undermined the precedent of American dominance while simultaneously reaching out to one of the NSA’s most vocal critics and denouncers.

What does this three day tumble of events mean for Internet governance? While it is hard to model every possible outcome, three important implications are hard to ignore.

The first is that the GNI’s coalition model of Internet policy making, previously the most promising organizational model to sustain checks and balances on governmental power on the Internet, is likely to need some serious rethinking. While declaring that the model is a failure would be premature, the rising prominence of distributed systems attacks indicates that decentralized decision making will likely be the new forum for the highest delta. Think Anonymous activism, but with the formal backing of NGOs who lost faith in formal discussions.

The second is what some political theorists might term ‘a shift in global power’. The impacts are fairly intuitive – Internet governance is moving closer to emerging markets such as Brazil with weaker federal oversight, edging further away from the US, and signalling a palpable decrease in the US’ ability to affect ICANN’s agenda.

The third may be seen as a derivative of the second, though it is no less important: the corollary effects of reduced American influence on Internet businesses in the United States. While the Snowden fiasco has brought to light the inherent problems of the American government’s dominance over internet policy and operations, one would be hard pressed to argue that the consumer software industry in the US would have grown as rapidly as it has without the services that the US government catalyzed within ICANN such as the rapid and inexpensive resolution of domain name disputes, and regulated pricing of top level domains.

While it is still too early to predict the complete fallout from the loss of American dominance in Internet governance, one thing is clear – the US had more than one kind of shut down last week.

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