A Network of Dictators

There's a fight brewing for the future of the Internet.


The Internet came very close to being kidnapped last week. Russia and China used the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to push for government control of the Internet and restrictions on access to information. WCIT was supposed to update an obscure U.N. treaty on international telecommunications, but instead a longstanding fight over control of the Internet to reduce the risks it poses to authoritarian regimes came to a head. This was not entirely a surprise. In 2011, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia’s WCIT goal was "establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union" (the U.N. body responsible for telecommunications and the WCIT).

The WCIT saw national sovereignty return with a vengeance. Blocs of states competed for power. This is not a bipolar contest, with the West on the side of righteousness. Our righteousness has been dented and there are many more players. Governments as diverse as Malaysia, Vietnam, and India want their values and their national laws to have precedence in cyberspace. If the overworked term "globalization" means a borderless world, where American culture and values dominate, and if the Internet is the primary vehicle for delivering this, other nations want greater control of the car. The Russians cleverly used discontent with the status quo to win support for repressive ideas, including international endorsement for blocking access to troubling websites.

Authoritarian regimes fear the Internet because they fear their own people. Russia, China, and Iran see the access to information brought by the Internet as a threat to regime survival. Last year, when he was still Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev said of the Arab Spring and social networks, "Let’s face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to implement it." Medvedev would not identify who he meant by "they," but the finger-pointing brings back memories of the Kremlin’s jittery reaction to popular uprisings that toppled entrenched regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s. At the time, Putin and other senior officials publicly accused the West of meddling. Authoritarian regimes believe that the Internet is, as one Chinese official put it, part of "an American plot" to undermine other governments.

The United States was on the defensive, shielding the Internet’s status quo. This is too easily portrayed as America’s desire to keep its political and economic control of the Internet. Americans may be surprised to learn that they control the Internet, a conglomeration of millions of individual networks, but the belief that the United States has a grand strategy to preserve "hegemony" has a deep hold on thinking in many nations. Hegemony, in this case, means using American technology and the services of giant American companies to access a global resource managed by an American corporation under contract to the Commerce Department. Russia and China argued persuasively that this global resource should be managed by all nations, under the auspices of the United Nations. Eighty-seven nations, led by blocs from the Middle East and Africa, supported Russia and China, while only 54 agreed with the United States.

There were many reasons for the broad support of the Russian and Chinese proposal. The United States has less influence after its misadventures in the Middle East, a tarnished human rights record, and is the victim of a widespread belief that it was responsible for global recession. The apparent decline of Europe reinforces the unwillingness of other nations to accept without question Western leadership (and values). Many countries were swayed by development considerations (meaning more high-speed telecommunications services for poor countries), for which the authoritarian proposals seemed to offer greater support.

The WCIT showed that the end of the Cold War was a temporary triumph for democracy. When Russia and China abandoned communism and embraced markets, some expected that they would play by Western "rules," but they do not regard these rules as binding, immutable, or legitimate. International relations are in a period of ambiguity — not quite great power politics (too much economic interdependence for that), but also not a single, international community sharing similar values and content to accept the United States as its leader.

Fin de siècle ideas about a borderless world where governments would play a lesser role remain strongly embedded in American thinking about the Internet. These old ideas let authoritarian regimes capture the agenda for change. We are past the moment when it appeared that borders would disappear and nation-states would be replaced by an amorphous international community. Far from disappearing, borders and states, after an initial period of decline, are adjusting to and adopting new technologies. The resurgence of sovereignty means governments will extend their laws into cyberspace and create technologies to enforce them, but this resurgence is linked to a troubling trend. This new sovereignty disputes Western values once thought to be universal. There is questioning, if not rejection, of the ideals and institutions for global governance imposed on the world 65 years ago. If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put to a vote now, it might not win.

The longstanding U.S. position that an open, free Internet is the best for innovation and growth is no longer persuasive. If it were true, the European Union would be outperforming China. Linking democracy to dubious commercial arguments puts human rights at risk. America needs a more compelling narrative to defend universal values.

That narrative has to be political, more like the Helsinki Accords than Davos. Internet governance is only one part, albeit an important one, of the larger rebalancing of global power. It is also the latest chapter in the struggle for democracy and rule of law. The United States must explain — in the face of the resurgence of sovereignty, the shift of power away from Europe, and the growing importance of non-Western states — why democracy remains best for both justice and growth.

Some say that Dubai was a victory for Internet freedom. This is true in the same way that Dunkirk can be considered a victory for escaping defeat. The American negotiators performed admirably given how weak a hand they inherited. But this was no real victory. A contest of ideas explains why a technical discussion turned into a politicized debate. The battle for the WCIT is over. The battle for the Internet has begun, and we need better ideas if we are to win it.

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