A framework for knotty global Internet problems

A think tank wants to separate technical architecture from issues of high policy to smooth cross-border Internet conflicts.

Shutterstock image: global, international connections.

Microsoft is in the midst of a high-stakes battle about the reach of U.S. law enforcement into worldwide data centers. The federal government asserts rights to obtain by legal warrant emails of a Microsoft customer stored in an Irish data center, and so far judges involved in the case have backed the government.

The case spotlights the conflict baked into the highly dispersed, global technological framework -- to what extent can national laws have jurisdiction in virtual space that is beyond their borders. It's a compelling question for Microsoft and others in the cloud services business, whose ability to attract large non-U.S. based institutional and government customers is already challenged by the revelations of U.S. spy agency surveillance on the global Internet.

Dan Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, wants to calm the roiled waters of global Internet governance, especially now that it appears many U.S. firms are seeing their technological edge potentially being undermined by the federal government's jurisdictional posture.

Castro proposes a universal approach to the technical architecture of the Internet -- domain names, networking rules -- to be determined by a truly global constituency of stakeholders. At the same time, Castro wants to concede that topics like free speech, privacy, and other policy issues are essentially questions about the values of individual nations and regimes, and can't be effectively be adjudicated in global forums.

The approach is similar to conventions that have grown up around sea and air travel, noted Stephen Conroy, an Australian senator and former telecommunications minister, who spoke via Skype at a panel discussion convened to receive the report. One important advantage to such an approach, Conroy noted, would be to focus the constellation of global Internet governance forums on technical issues. As a veteran of these sorts of events, he noted that there are participants who use such gatherings as opportunities to "relitigate" other global and multinational agreements.

Under the framework, for example, the U.S. in the Microsoft case would be advised to not assert its jurisdiction across its borders, and instead look to improve existing law enforcement reciprocity agreements to be speedier and more responsive.

Castro's paper is timely. The federal government is in the midst of a process of transferring its control over the basic structure of the global Internet to a yet-to-be determined body. Under the current schedule, by 2019 or so, a new non-governmental multi-stakeholder entity will have control over the Internet's root zone file -- the master lists of top-level web domains like .com and .net.

The transition is playing out largely out of public view, at meetings of groups like the International Telecommunications Union of the United Nations, the World Wide Web Consortium, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and many others. While U.S. policy explicitly bars ceding control to a cross-government authority such as a U.N.-based agency, some countries, notably China, Russia, and Iran, see the move as an opportunity to have more influence on the way the Internet is governed.

There are some pitfalls to the process. As Conroy noted, "it's a mistake to think that architecture is value free," and that the values of the original designers and innovators who built the Internet are encoded into its processes, with its emphasis on openness and anonymity.

There are also grave doubts about the ability of the U.S. to drive this conversation, considering the revelations from former intelligence community contractor Edward Snowden about the way the U.S. has harnessed the architecture of the global Internet for its own ends.

The Snowden revelations were "a lethal attack on our credibility in this debate," said Gordon Goldstein, a managing partner at investment firm Silver Lake and an advisor to various global Internet governance bodies.

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