113 Speak up early and loud

Posted on May 21, 2012 by

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Mainstream media no longer controls the narrative on a policy subject. It must expect debate, and counter-narratives. The next best thing to influence a policy narrative is to speak up early and loudly in order to set the theme and tone of the discussion. L. Gordon CROVITZ’s editorial in the WSJ[1] serves this function in the global discussion on Internet politics and the forthcoming World Conference on International Communication of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).[2]

When one writes an article, one writes for at least two audiences: (a) the harried reader and (b) the reflective reader. The first is often in the majority – unless the subject is celebrity trysts. What counts are the buzz words in the title, subtitle, and the first, say, two paragraphs. So, what has CROVITZ said?

The UN wants to run the internet (title). This is misleading. First, the UN is marginalized in global politics. All main global policy issues, including the financial crisis, are discussed with various G-s, mainly the G-8 and the G-20. Secondly the UN per se has no power to run the Internet, just as the UN Security Council does not run the world. Governments may collectively (in this case 193 of them) decide to create rules. They may delegate oversight of the implementation to the ITU, but the ITU has neither the power to set the agenda, not to decide its outcome.

The subtitle reads: Authoritarian regimes want to prohibit anonymity on the Web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. The pre-eminence of such authoritarian regimes is reinforced by listing three of them in the first paragraph: Russia, China, and Iran. The perception of impending doom is strengthened by the rhetorical question concluding the first paragraph: Can a majority of countries be trusted to keep their hands off the Web?

The spectre of secrecy is raised by arguing that proposals by Member Countries are confidential, and the indications that proposals have been leaked.

One could go on highlighting such dog whistle terms, which are meant to leave the harried leader with the impression that there is a UN conspiracy afoot to grab hold of Internet governance. This sentiment is heightened when the article states: Mr. Toure [Secretary-General of ITU] said that the agenda for the December meeting, which will be held in Dubai, would not include ITU ‘governance’ of the Web. But he refused to have this reassurance written into the record, which is further evidence of a power grab. As indicated above, the ITU Secretariat does not set the Agenda, so it can only speak about rebus sic stantibus. It can neither force nor prohibit a discussion on governance. The evidence cited by CROVITZ is baseless.

Nevertheless, enough markers have been scattered across the article to influence US opinion that there is a dark UN machination afoot in favour of authoritarian regimes. It does not matter that the allegation is baseless. It will stick in many minds, and unsticking it will take resources.

 

The rest of the article deals with substance. Here different strands of argument crisscross the article, some more, some less relevant.[3] The core issue is, I think: How important it’s been for the Internet to develop outside of multinational organizations, with technology companies, engineering associations and civil society groups having as much influence as governments.

This is an assertion, not an argument. How weak the argument actually is can be gleaned by the readiness of Internet companies to accommodate the wishes of authoritarian regimes. These regimes only have to threaten the company with exclusion from their market, and the company will find a way to comply.

Even if not threatened, the provider will be wary of running afoul of the government. Nazi Germany was seldom run by orders from Hitler himself. Rather, he expected everyone to operate towards the (implied) will of the Führer – he only intervened if things did not go the way he wished.

I’ve used the argument of guilt by association because the role of providers as second-removed and discretionary censors has barely been touched. Companies do not have to justify their exclusionary decisions – let alone respect civil rights. There is no recourse to national or international Courts of Justice. Is it sufficient to rely on the goodwill of Internet companies and nice words? Is an Internet run by companies the only alternative to so-called bad UN? Is there any other way that would engage both Internet companies, as guarantors of the Internet’s innovative dynamism, and the UN as the main place where the public policy issues should be addressed?

CROVITZ has spoken early, loudly, and beside the point. But in so doing he has set the tone and theme of the argument. Serious discussion will now have to swim against a strong current of innuendos, errors, and irrelevant or incomplete arguments.

This is regrettable – but we live in a society where winning an argument is all that counts. Whether this is sustainable is another matter, one CROVITZ does not seem to care about.

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[1]      L. Gordon CROVITZ (2012) The U.N. Wants to Run the Internet. WSJ May 8thhttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304749904577384281275240056.html

[2]      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Telecommunication_Union

[3]      A lesser issue, though high up in the article, is the following: Yet another idea is a new fee, payable whenever users access the Web ‘internationally’—whatever that means for a global Web, especially as servers increasingly are in the cloud, nowhere and everywhere—which would restore payments governments lost when international telephone charges fell. This would undermine the seamless nature of the Web. This is a second order issue: since the Internet is free, people who use the Internet for telephony can call long distance for free. The infrastructure provider is short-changed. There is surely some way to come to a fair agreement about how to pay for the physical infrastructure that carries Net traffic.