The Messy Business of Governing the Internet

07/04/2014 15:54 BST | Updated 04/06/2014 10:59 BST

NETmundial is the most important event happening this year you've never heard of. Later this month, representatives from a variety of countries, international organisations, private companies and non-profits will gather at the conference in São Paulo to discuss the future governance of the Internet. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, a debate about how, and who, should regulate the Internet -- long waged among a small group of informed people -- has become front page news.

By its very nature, the Internet crosses borders, languages and jurisdictions. It is also a technical beast, demanding a certain level of standardisation in order to function as a truly global commons rather than as a series of siloed networks. As a result, it has been governed by the ragtag coalition gathering in Brazil since it broke free of the American military (in the so called 'multi-stakeholder model').

This model allows for a diverse range of expertise to address challenges as they emerge, sometimes creating new organisations to manage specific problems and at other times incorporating new functions into the existing patchwork of groups that govern the Internet. Innovation happens rapidly and spontaneously, therefore attempting to create one single entity responsible for governing the Internet would be as ineffective as it foolish. Large organisations are bureaucratic, slow to address emerging problems and reluctant to embrace change.

Yet, at NETmundial, this is precisely the threat. Spurred by Snowden, certain players (most notably that bastion of Internet freedom, China), have been pressing for a change to a multilateral approach. That is, they want a governance model centred on treaties between national governments -- think a UN for the Internet. Their submission to NETmundial, also signed by Internet freedom fighters Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is instructive.

"...purpose of the present code [that they propose] is to identify the rights and responsibilities of States in information as to ensure that information and communications technologies...are to be solely used to benefit social and economic development and people's well-being, with the objective of maintaining international stability and security."

A model on these lines, or in fact any that framed governance between sovereign states in a multilateral organisation, would promote the fragmentation of the Internet. Instead of seeking to resolve new problems, governments would come to see emerging technologies as threats to their own national networks. To use a current example, how exactly does Google -- a resource that makes the web easily searchable and therefore information more readily available -- benefit China? It doesn't. Google, to its credit, is no longer willing to play by their rules and so is effectively banned from operating in the country. Imagine, then, China had a seat at the table when the technologies underpinning the operation of Google were first scrutinised. We could have all been robbed of a (largely) great good.

There are weaknesses to the current system and, hopefully, at NETmundial these will begin to be addressed. Many have been uneasy that the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which exercises central control over the Internet's global address book, has a formal relationship with the United States Government. Thankfully steps to remedy this were recently, and unexpectedly announced, by the US spurred on by the Snowden leaks.

Data accountability is, however, a running sore that continues to bleed. Shielded by legalese as intelligible as a monkey on acid, companies are amassing reams of data on each and everyone of us. In order to continue to use their Gmail or get the latest update for their apps, no one in their right mind is going to click "I Don't Agree". That's tantamount to locking yourself out of the online world.

Suspicion abounds about what these companies (Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple etc.) want, and do, with all this data about us. We feel it's our data, not theirs (it is ours, by the way). But how to fight a clause in a privacy policy -- if you've ever read the thing -- on your own? Or how to correct or delete data stored about you? Snowden showed that these companies are either passing on our data without permission or, perhaps worse, are simply unable to keep it secure. This wound encourages the autocrats in their quest to bring about a more restricted online experience -- the promise of 'tighter' control by States offers, in their own words, "stability and security". Of a kind, sure, but at great cost.

A collection of the biggest names in tech have put forward sensible proposals to bring transparency to how governments request, access and store user data. They are proportionate and ought to be adopted globally. Yet their reforms singularly fail to mention their own part to play in pushing back against the surveillance economy.

Those attending NETmundial who value Internet freedom should rapidly address this problem of data; it is the type of problem for which the multi-stakeholder model was designed to address. A new body for data accountability should be created that would standardise the data that can be collected about us, issue regulations about how it should be held and empower the Internet user to gain control over their now standardised (and therefore more easily managed) data. Whilst a central database is not a very good idea, this new body would bring clarity and intelligibility to the currently confusing situation.

Maintaining the integrity, and improving the operation, of the multi-stakeholder model is critical. Alongside this, restoring trust between Internet users and the companies -- the majority creative forces for good -- is equally important. Putting user data in control of the user is paramount to restoring this relationship. Failure to act at NETmundial could herald less a move towards keeping the global commons open than the slow descent into a global gulag.