The Edward Snowden revelations of mass surveillance make it clear that it is not only the technical or commercial communities that must be at part of the debate but civil society as well, Carolina Rossini from Global Partners Digital Associate told RT.
RT: How did the US manage to retain so much concentrated control over the internet over the decades?
Carolina Rossini: The US did not proactively take over the Internet. They for decades have invested in research projects that actually were trying to develop better communications both for the army and universities. So naturally the US invested into technology that was a technology for the internet as we know it today. Of course that evolved over time and many countries have contributed to the development of that technology; more than if you think about the development of fiber optics and so on. But the technology emerged in a great extent from the US investment in research and their innovation capacity. At the same time nowadays the internet is somewhat a broader issue that implicates the lives of people, implicates commerce and has a huge impact on human rights. Nowadays this became much more than simply communication of national actors. We have to ensure that no one takes over it. Fortunately, it’s not even possible, the internet has so many layers, so many pieces, it’s almost a quilt. We do have many international organizations and technical bodies, policy bodies dealing with different aspects of the internet - from the technical layer where for example organizations like ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) work to the social layer where we have companies like Facebook and Twitter.
RT: ICANN announced that it will be setting up the "multistakeholder" governance to oversee the internet's core workings. What difference will this make in protecting privacy and security online?
CR: ICANN has existed since the mid-1990s. Actually the US had a call for proposals where some private companies and some academics came together to say “The US, we are prepared to take over the root services which are like the Excel spreadsheets which were matching the numbers with the names that are humanly readable, that is starting growing and impact all over the world, we needed somebody to take care of that." So ICANN come out to be that organization that won the “public bid” proposal to take care of that. And ICANN for many years have established "multistakeholder" participation in different bodies. They have laws and procedures to try to ensure that all the communities that actually helped to develop the internet have a word. So you have the technical community, you have the academic community, you have the companies that are also the owners of a lot of infrastructure. But again, even in that case no technology is neutral. We have more actors coming to the table such as civil society and human rights protectors saying “Look, this is not neutral technology and if you are not careful the technology can be controlled and as we have seen, the backdoors can be implemented”. So we cannot have at the table just the technical community or commercial community or the international organizations’ community, the governments, the multilateral mechanisms, we cannot have just those folks - we need to have civil society that are worried with human rights so that those technologies are not used for surveillance. So we are in the process where a lot of rights are actually crosscutting various layers of the internet. And now that we see on our face how it can be used for surveillance without much legal accountability, civil society needs to be at the table, public interests need to be at the table to ensure that there are some principles of legality, transparency and many others that deal with how technology can be and if technology could not be used for surveillance.
RT: Brazil and many other countries are pushing for international internet governance and transparency, but given the mechanisms the US has cemented and built over the years, is it realistic to believe that the US will loosen the grip it has? What can they honestly create change?
CR: One thing that is really important to understand is that the internet is not just one thing, it is composed by many things from the hardware to the cables, software, servers, IXPs that are crossing points where we exchange traffic. No one person owns all those elements, so we have different actors that control different pieces. The US for many years is acknowledging that they have a bid to many international forums, including ITU (International Telecommunication Union), including UN which are traditional multilateral forums where governments develop treaties or soft law, etc. Russia, India and Sudan – all were there negotiating some legislation that could interfere and manage those technical standards or agreements even in terms of what the bilateral contracts and memorandum of understanding between their security agencies should develop through surveillance and cooperate on that. The internet has not just been part of one American university, it has always expressed itself as an international issue. What we are discussing now in the West is that the US is letting the 'internet control' go, transferring some functions to the "multistakeholder" community. But it has been clear in various testimonies in the US Congress that the US had a stewardship role. The US didn’t have the decision power. Not even that control was part of US control. We cannot of course say that the US doesn’t have power or hegemony in a lot of issues because the US is a powerful country economically and politically, they have an army of diplomats well prepared to deal with that, and some developing countries do not have those resources. Of course you have those imbalances on diplomatic negotiations, but we do have both the BRICS and some developing countries from Africa really playing very important roles in different international forums from WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) where developing countries got the development agenda in place, to the ITU where they pushed for international treaties around where we oppose as a civil society. We don’t want things [to be decided on] in the ITU because of the government control there. I think Brazil is playing the leadership role in really ensuring that internet governance is transparent, is inclusive and is democratic. On Tuesday Brazil approved in its Senate, their Bill of Rights for the Internet. It’s an incredibly historical moment to pursue and this bill is a model to the world in terms of digital rights for its citizens. It protects privacy, it protects neutrality. It is going to be a first of a kind law in the world. Of course Brazil is pushing both for digital rights and transparency to that process nationally, there is a national fight for many years, and also doing the same internationally. So it’s a great moment that should be a part of discussions there in Brazil.
RT: Would such an aggressive effort be underway if Edward Snowden didn't blow the whistle on the NSA's spy programs?
CR: I think that [Edward] Snowden brought us very sad news which many people in the world working in technology, internet and public interest already suspected but didn’t have the proof for. Having this proof thrown in your face, it really brought to the table of negotiation politicians that were not so close to the debate. It actually created a wave of emotional engagement of politicians. The President of Brazil Dilma Roussef was not involved in the discussions before these revelations, but when she heard, especially about her personal life being monitored, she engaged even at a very deep level, the emotional level. It’s correct to say that many things had been happening before Snowden, we had already been discussing better and transparent international internet governing mechanisms, we had already been debating here in Brazil. We had already been urging for uniting Brazil to Europe and Africa, to have better connection and better velocity and better transmission. But I think the Snowden revelations gave a final push to ensure that policy makers at the higher level would actually engage and make this move faster, something that the civil society has been working so hard for so many years. Finally we had this final element that pushed things forward. This is a very opportune moment to have that happen, and now we are going to have to deal with all the issues that came about, we have to review the legislation in the US. Obama has started that process and there was a report on those issues. So we are in a process to fix that and hopefully now that things are more transparent we have more information to work with. When you don’t have information you cannot work. It’s a great opportunity to try to change this, to have better process, to protect privacy and to respect the country rights and citizens that are not American citizens. Human rights should be applicable to all human beings, not just within certain borders. So it’s a great opportunity for us to take a greater pressure and to put limits on something that was unlimited.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.