A new submission to the UN's General Assembly from China, Russia and the 'stans may reignite fears of a government takeover of the internet.
Dated 13 January but only appearing now in English, the document (A/69/723) [PDF] is an "update" of the countries' "international code of conduct for information security." That code of conduct was first put to the UN's general assembly in 2011, sparking a stir over the future of the web's security.
This time around, a key section on how the internet should be governed has been tweaked to include the phrase: "All States must play the same role in, and carry equal responsibility for, international governance of the Internet."
Today, the internet is overseen by many bodies, mostly technical ones, who work out the standards describing how everything should connect together. They generally debate things on their technical merit. Now it seems China, Russia and their pals want to stick their oar in, injecting politics into the process while dressing it up as "multilateral, transparent and democratic mechanisms."
And it appears the code is expanding beyond maintaining network security to encroach into the internet's content.
There are references to governments working together in "combating criminal and terrorist activities" online, and in "curbing the dissemination of information that incites terrorism, separatism or extremism or that inflames hatred on ethnic, racial or religious grounds."
There is also mentioned of protecting "national security or of public order, or of public health or morals."
All of which may sounds good, but in the case of China and Russia has often be used to justify the persecution of groups that many in the West feel should be protected, such as Falun Gong in China, or homosexuals in Russia.
What's going on
While it's often difficult to parse government language for true intent, the fact that China and Russia have added fresh language to the code of conduct, and specifically mentioned "equal responsibility" for internet governance, as well as used the loaded phrase "multilateral", all points to a likely effort by the two members of the UN Security Council to increase the influence and primacy of governments online.
For the past decade, Western powers, particularly the United States, as well as the technical community, businesses and civil society, have been collectively arguing for a broader form of decision-making – which has been boiled down to the nauseating term "multistakeholder."
That word implies that everyone – from protocol geeks to CIOs, and not just governments – should have a say in internet policy issues, although there is a general acceptance that governments collectively have particular expertise in the "public policy" aspects of the internet.
The term "multilateral" however points to a government-led and run decision-making process that many fear is a major step on the path to a government-run internet.
Here we go again
This tension has been played out repeatedly over the past 15 years, with a World Summit in 2005 drawing the battle lines and two subsequent Plenipotentiaries of UN body the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2010 and 2014 seeing efforts to shift the landscape.
Famously, at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December 2012, efforts to pull the internet into existing telecoms regulations resulted in a dramatic split, with many – including most Western governments – refusing to sign.
With the ITU effectively conceding last year that it will not get involved in the governance of the internet (although there are still points of research that it may take on), it may be that China and Russia have calculated that they should use their sway in the UN General Assembly to exert greater influence.
This new document also comes on the ten-year anniversary of the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, and in the year where the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) – which is a UN-run annual assembly but one that works in a multistakeholder fashion – is up for renewal after 10 years.
In short, it looks like 2015 will yet again be a year of struggle over how the internet is governed in the future. ®