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Fight for Control of the Internet Has Global Implications

Mike Nelson and Leslie Harris discuss international differences in governments’ approaches to the Internet. | Credit: AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Governments, corporations and individuals are all striving to gain control over the Internet, said panelists at a 2 May AAAS discussion on Internet policy, and the results of that struggle will have repercussions for Internet users across the world.

“It’s not just government, it’s not just companies,” said Gigi B. Sohn, president and CEO of Public Knowledge, a public-interest nonprofit organization. “Sometimes it’s the combination of them both working in cahoots. Sometimes it’s individuals as well.”

Frequently, corporate threats to innovation and speech on the Internet “are being aided and abetted by government’s actions or sometimes, government’s lack of action,” Sohn said, because elected officials either fear losing corporate campaign contributions or genuinely support such actions.

Sohn made her remarks during “Who Wants to Control the Internet and How?” a panel discussion at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, 2-3 May at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.

“This is a critical time for the Internet, and I would argue that we have about three years to really determine how the Internet evolves over the next 10 to 15 years,” said Mike Nelson, technology policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and session moderator. “Part of this is because there is a growing understanding that the Internet is becoming everything. It’s the cable television network. It’s the phone network. It’s obviously data networks. And the old rules, from broadcasting, from radio, from telephones, are all being imposed on the Internet in some countries.”

Forty-five years ago, the business model for telecommunications was hierarchical, Nelson explained, with subscribers occupying the lowest layer of the pyramid. “Many countries still want to think about telecommunications in this way, and they would love to have this kind of structure for the Internet,” he said. The development of the Internet has flipped the pyramid, however, empowering the “billions of users who have lots of choices about what service to use, what device to use, what site to go to.”


Slides illustrating the differences between the business models for the telecommunications industry and the Internet. | Courtesy of Mike Nelson

This flip is partly due to “technology determinism,” the idea “that every new technology carries with it the culture of the people who are central to it,” explained Stewart Abercrombie Baker, partner at the law firm Steptoe and Johnson and former general counsel for National Security Agency. Technology is shaped by the environment in which it comes to commercial prominence, Baker said. For example, the airline industry came of age during the Progressive Era, around the turn of the 20th century, and as a result is highly regulated.


In contrast, computer technology matured in the aftermath of World War II when many were concerned about the rise of totalitarianism, Baker said. Those working in computer science at the time were “full of zeal to make sure that it did not enable a totalitarian form of government,” he said. “That culture is still deep seated in the computer industry. It is part of the DNA of the industry.”

As adoption of a technology grows in different countries, users generally expect the technology to conform to the norms and values of their culture. But, the cultures of the technology and its new host country may be incompatible.

As a result, a conflict between two opposing models of Internet control is growing. Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology explained that the Western view of the Internet is a multi-stakeholder model where “the government plays a role but it is one player among many.” In contrast, the model in China and Russia is “a government-controlled and mediated Internet where the government sets all the rules, borders define the Internet and human rights take a back seat to political control,” she said.

“What is interesting here is these governments have now built a technology that is the technology we feared back in 1948″ and are enthusiastically exporting that model, Baker said. “We thought we’d put our values in the technology, roll it out and it would roll over governments around the world. They’ve said, well, we’ve put our values into this technology too and now we’re going to roll over yours.”

The underlying issue for many countries “is that the Internet has totally upended the notion of sovereignty,” Harris said. “There’s no treaty, there’s no convention or any globally applicable instrument that comprehensively defines jurisdictional rules for the Internet, whether it’s data protection, law enforcement, whatever the issue is.”

Moreover, new players from corporate America have arisen to fill the void. “The new Internet sovereigns are companies, principally United States companies, who can impose their own governance on the Internet through their terms of service, through the decisions they make in response to government demands for censorship or access to personal information, as well as technical choices they make about what we see and do,” Harris said.

Many of the new sovereigns bring American values into their decision-making process, she continued, alienating non-U.S. governments in the process. “If I was a government official, trying to enforce my own law against my own citizen whose data is held in Mountain View and I’m unable to do so, and the decision about whether I can enforce the law or not basically lies with what we are now calling ‘the deciders’ at Google, I might be extraordinarily resentful that the Internet has somehow broken sovereignty,” Harris said. “China’s approach to the Internet offers an approach that reinstates government control.”

Other companies are exerting control over the Internet in a different way: through zealous copyright enforcement. This practice stifles innovation by threatening startup companies with extreme penalties and damages, Sohn said. “The purpose of patent and copyright is to incentivize invention and promote knowledge,” she said. “You now have these incredible battles over patents costing companies millions of dollars, billions of dollars, and venture capitalists do not want to invest in new online start-ups because they’re afraid that they’re going to be sued.”

These companies are also trying to convince Internet service providers to block or redirect traffic to certain websites, through proposed legislation including the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). SOPA was shelved after millions of people protested against it, but since then companies have lobbied to have provisions from SOPA inserted into trade agreements, including the Trans Pacific Partnership, Sohn said. “To me, this is far more dangerous than anything that Congress can think up, because the ability of people to actually weigh in is limited because of the lack of transparency and the lack of due process,” she said.

“The nature of the Internet is that when you ask for something, when you put in an address, you expect to go there and that there shouldn’t be anybody in the middle telling you that you have to go somewhere else,” Sohn said.

View the program from the 2013 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum.

View Mike Nelson’s presentation slides