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02 April 2014

The US Opaque Control over the Internet

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By Dan Schiller

Despite years of rhetoric about the virtues of market freedom, historically the U.S. Government had been the most important structuring force behind the Internet. Not only did U.S. military contracts underwrite the research and development on which the Internet’s underlying technology is based; not only did the Government supply an unrivaled market for Internet equipment and services; not only did the U.S. contrive policy through which to privatize the Internet’s backbone networks (Abbate 1999). The U.S. Government also played a crucial role in the migration of the sales effort—advertising, marketing, and e-commerce—to the Internet during the 1990s. Close coordination between the upper echelons of the Clinton Administration and U.S. business, as Matthew Crain (2013) shows, enabled the World Wide Web’s assimilation into the commercial media-marketing system. The installation of lax privacy strictures allowed technical innovations—cookies—to be introduced and widely deployed, empowering marketers to track consumers as they surfed online. The Internet thus morphed into a “surveillance engine,” as Wikileaks’ Julian Assange later called it (2012), as a consequence of deliberate policy. Only the U.S. Government’s active support enabled business to incorporate the Internet so fully into its sales effort.

The U.S. also established the Internet as an extraterritorial system with the United States itself as its hub. By brokering, or at least facilitating, agreements to exchange data traffic between organizations sited in different countries, and by ensuring that the agencies charged with managing critical Internet resources (unique identifiers, including autonomous system numbers, generic domain names, and Internet addresses) were accountable to its own Executive Branch, the U.S. Government helped establish a U.S.-centric Internet.

U.S. power over the Internet is not comprehensive; it is also opaque. Formally, this power is expressed through legal contracts that bind a nonprofit contractor—a California corporation called ICANN (as well as a shadowy for-profit U.S. company called VeriSign, which not only manages the dotcom franchise but also manages crucial Internet address system functions) to the Commerce Department. A key part of its attempt to downplay its structured relationship with U.S. state power has been ICANN’s much-heralded “multi-stakeholder model”: multi-stakeholderism confers formal representation on corporations and civil society groups as well as governments, but absents Internet governance from the sphere of multilateral institutions. A comparable veneer obscures the activities of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an independent organization charged with developing Internet architecture and system engineering and possessing no formal obligations to U.S. authorities. IETF operations are sheltered behind an ideological cloak of neutral technocratic expertise, supposedly cut free of corporate or state interests. The organization, however, is disproportionately staffed by employees of U.S. companies and U.S. state agencies. Can it be inconsequential that (data from 2007) 71 percent of the 120 specialized working groups whose remit is to improve Internet technology were chaired by individuals from the United States, while developing country representatives counted for 6 percent of this total? Or that nearly four-fifths of these experts were employed by private companies such as Cisco Systems (Mathiason 2008, 36) As Milton Mueller (2010, 240) sums it up, the coordination and control of today’s extraterritorial Internet add up to “unilateral globalism” exercised by a single superstate: the U.S.

The U.S. Government continued to make a privileged U.S. role in cyberspace a cornerstone of its economic diplomacy

Even as it became institutionalized during the 1990s, this skew gave rise to political contention. Foreign states—Brazil and China were prominent—pushed to alter existing arrangements. Some asserted that the cost structure, the technical features, and the management of the Internet prevented them from exercising their own jurisdictional authority over national political-economic and cultural space. Some recognized that the U.S. preemption of the extraterritorial Internet hindered, even foreclosed, profitable participation by non-U.S. interests along what had become a decisive frontier of economic growth. The appearance of unilateral U.S. power seemed to signify an absence of comity with respect to global Internet governance. The conflict simmered, and periodically boiled up. At the World Summit on the Information Society between 2003 and 2005, unhappiness was transmuted into concrete initiatives; but these efforts stumbled in the face of U.S. recalcitrance.

The U.S. Government continued to make a privileged U.S. role in cyberspace a cornerstone of its economic diplomacy. Resisting attempts to place oversight and management of the Internet in multilateral organizations, the U.S. instead tolerated merely cosmetic changes to the existing U.S.-centric system. Concurrently, U.S. authorities campaigned to defend and, if possible, to extend U.S. businesses’ already massive exploitation of transborder data flows (TDF).

Read more in Dan Schiller’s article The Internet and business

Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)

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