Masters Of The Internet
by Dan Schiller
The geopolitics of the Internet broke open during the first half of December
at an international conference in Dubai convened by the International
Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN affiliate agency with
193 national members. At these meetings, states (thronged by corporate
advisors) forge agreements to enable international communications via cables
and satellites. These gatherings, however boring and bureaucratic, are
crucial because of the enormous importance of networks in the operation of
the transnational political economy.
The December 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications
(WCIT) in Dubai produced a major controversy: should ITU members vest the
agency with oversight responsibilities for the Internet, responsibilities
comparable to those it has exercised for decades for other forms of
The United States said no, and the US position won out: the new ITU treaty
document did not grant the agency a formal role in what has come to be
called "global Internet governance". However, a majority of countries voted
to attach a resolution "invit[ing] member states to elaborate on their
respective position on international Internet-related technical, development
and public policy issues within the mandate of the ITU at various ITU fora."
Objecting to "even symbolic global oversight", as a New York Times writer
put it (1), the US refused to sign the treaty and walked away. So did
France, Germany, Japan, India, Kenya, Colombia, Canada, Britain and other
nations. However, more than two-thirds of the attending countries - 89 all
told - endorsed the document. (And some of the nations that did not sign may
accept the treaty later.)
To understand what is at stake we need to make our way through the
rhetorical smog. For months prior to the WCIT, the Euro-American press
trumpeted warnings that this was to be an epochal clash between upholders of
an open Internet and would-be government usurpers, led by authoritarian
states like Russia, Iran and China. The terms of reference were set so
rigidly that one European telecom company executive called it a campaign of
"propaganda warfare" (2).
Freedom of expression is no trifling issue. No matter where we live, there
is reason for worry that the Internet's relative openness is being usurped,
corroded or canalised. This does not necessarily imply armies of state
censors or "great firewalls". The US National Security Agency, for example,
sifts wholesale through electronic transmissions transiting satellite and
cable networks, through its extensive "listening posts" and its gigantic new
data centre at Bluffdale Utah (3); and the US government has gone after a
true proponent of freedom of expression - WikiLeaks - in deadly earnest. US
Internet companies such as Facebook and Google have transformed the Web into
a "surveillance engine" to vacuum up commercially profitable data about
Even during the 1970s, the rhetoric of "free flow of information" had long
functioned as a central tenet of US foreign policy. During the era of
decolonisation and cold war the doctrine purported to be a shining beacon,
lighting the world's way to emancipation from imperialism and state
repression. Today it continues to paint deep-seated economic and strategic
interests in an appealing language of universal human rights. "Internet
freedom", "freedom to connect", "net freedom" - terms circulated by
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Google executives together in the
run-up to the WCIT - are today's version of the longstanding "free flow"
precept. But just as before, "Internet freedom" is a red herring.
Calculatingly manipulative, it tells us to entrust a fundamental human right
to a pair of powerfully self-interested social actors: corporations and
The deliberations at the WCIT were multifaceted, and encompassed
crosscutting issues. One was the terms of trade between Internet services
like Google and the companies that transport their voluminous data streams -
network operators and ISPs like Verizon, Deutsche Telekom or Free. This
business fight harbours implications for a more general and important policy
issue: who should pay for the continual modernisations of network
infrastructure on which recurrent augmentations and enhancements of Internet
service depend. Xavier Niel's bold attack on Google's French revenues, when
he implemented an ad-blocker as his Free network's default setting, placed
this issue in bold relief before the public. But the terms of trade in the
global Internet industry are also important because any general edict that
content providers must pay network operators - Niel's goal, similar to that
of other telecom companies - would carry grave consequences for the Net
Neutrality policies which have been so vital for Internet users.
Until now, this power has been wielded disproportionately by the US (4).
During the 1990s, when the web-centric Internet exploded onto the world
stage, the US made intense efforts to institutionalise its management role.
Domain names led by dotcom, and numerical web addresses and network
identifiers, need to be unique for the system to operate; and the ability to
assign them in turn establishes a point from which institutional power may
be projected over the extraterritorial Internet. Management of these
critical Internet resources is exercised by a US agency, the Internet
Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), under contract to the US Department of
Commerce. The IANA operates ostensibly as a unit of a separate, and
seemingly more accountable, California-based non-profit called the Internet
Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Technical standards for
the Internet are developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and
the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) within another non-profit corporation,
the Internet Society. The composition and funding of these organisations
render them more responsive to US preferences than to users' demands (5).
The leading global commercial Internet sites are not operated by Chinese or
Russian, let alone by Kenyan or Mexican capital. As everyone knows, it is
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon that have built up the dotcom
services used by people all over the world. And a widening array of
commodification projects and corporate commodity chains continues to be
predicated on cross-border flows of Internet data; today's ongoing
transition schillerdigito "cloud computing" services will further widen this
dependence. The Internet's unbalanced control structure provides an
essential basis for US corporate and military supremacy in cyberspace.
While the US government exercises an outsized role, other states possess
scant opportunity - individually or collectively - to regulate the system.
By instituting various technical and legal measures, of course, they may
exercise sovereignty over their domestic Internets; but even when they stake
out these merely national jurisdictions, they are assailed by US
policymakers. Milton Mueller aptly captures this asymmetry in observing
that, as it is presently constituted, the Internet embodies a US policy of
"unilateral globalism" (6).
Exercising this management function has permitted the US to instil
property-logic at the heart of Internet system development - through ICANN.
Although it is a complex, semi-autonomous institution, ICANN's power over
the Domain Name System was deployed to confer extraterritorial advantages on
corporate trademark owners and other property interests - over the protests
of non-commercial organisations which, despite being represented within
ICANN, found themselves unable to prevail over Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble
and other big companies. And ICANN used private contract law to bind to its
rules the far-flung organisations which administer generic and country code
top-level domains worldwide.
National providers of various Internet applications control their domestic
markets in a number of countries, including Russia, China and the Republic
of Korea. Yet the transnational Internet services - the most profitable and
strategic points in this extraterritorial system - are citadels built by US
capital and state power.
Nearly from the outset, other nations have resisted their subordinate
status. As signs that the US was not about to relinquish its control grew,
so did opposition. It helped prompt a series of high-profile meetings - the
World Summit on the Information Society, organised by the ITU and held in
Geneva and Tunis between 2003 and 2005.
This World Summit was an explicit precursor of the 2012 clash in Dubai, in
that it established at least a small beachhead for states (beside that of
the US) in global Internet governance. ICANN's "Government Advisory
Committee", charged with providing input to the organisation's
"multi-stakeholder" process, grants governments the same formal status as
corporations and civil society groups. Many states actually might have been
content with this curious arrangement, but for one glaring fact. For all the
crowing about bottom-up diversity and multi-stakeholderism, global Internet
governance was not an egalitarian, or even a pluralist, enterprise. It was
patent that stakeholder number one was the US Executive Branch.
The demise of the unipolar moment, followed by the plunge into what has
become a long world depression, greatly accentuated and widened interstate
conflict over the political economy of cyberspace. Other governments
continued to look for a point of leverage, from which they could attempt to
open up global Internet coordination and management. In 2010-11 they even
appealed directly to the US Department of Commerce, when it began a
proceeding to evaluate its contract renewal with IANA for the management of
Internet addresses. Quite extraordinarily, several countries and one
international organisation - the ITU - submitted formal comments. The
government of Kenya proposed a "transition" away from management of the IANA
functions by the US Department of Commerce, and toward a multilateral
government-centred regime. US control should be modified by globalising the
arrangements for the entire institutional superstructure that had been built
up around Internet names and addresses. India, Mexico, Egypt and China made
strikingly similar submissions.
Dan Schiller is professor at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign)
and author of 'Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market Systems'
(MIT Press, Cambridge, US, 2000)
(1) Eric Pfanner, "Message, if murky, from U.S. to world", The New York
Times, 15 December 2012.
(2) Rachel Sanderson and Daniel Thomas, "US under fire after telecoms treaty
talks fail", Financial Times, London, 17 December 2012.
(3) James Bamford, "The NSA is Building the Country's Biggest Spy Center",
Wired, San Francisco, April 2012.
(4) Dwayne Winseck, "Big New Global Threat to the Internet or Paper Tiger?
The ITU and Global Internet Regulation", 10 June 2012; dwmw.wordpress.com
(5) Harold Kwalwasser, "Internet Governance",Cyberpower and National
Security, National Defense University Press-Potomac Press,
(6) Milton L Mueller, Networks and States: the Global Politics of Internet
Governance, MIT Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts), 2010.
(7) L Gordon Crovitz, "America's first big digital defeat",The Wall Street
Journal, New York, 17 December 2012.
The US responded by ratcheting up the rhetoric of "Internet freedom" as an
attempt to repel the escalating threat to its management control. No doubt
it has intensified its bilateral lobbying to induce some of the dissenting
states to come back into the fold. The effects became evident at the WCIT,
when India and Kenya joined the US in rejecting the treaty.
What will happen now? It's certain that US government agencies and leading
units of Internet capital such as Google will continue to project all the
power at their disposal to strengthen the US-centric Internet, and to
discredit its opponents. The political challenge to the US's "global
unilateralism", however, now has broken into the open - where it is certain
to remain. A Wall Street Journal editorialist did not hesitate to call Dubai
"America's first big digital defeat" (7).
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English
language edition can be found at mondediplo.com