Earlier in the Digital Eurasia:
The down of digital politics
The telecom boom
Regional powerhouse drives the digital age
Embracing the digital age
Redefining political activism
Big brother in Eurasia
A haven for cybercriminals
Closing the commons: The push to change global internet governance
Russia, with many states of the former Soviet Union in tow, is pushing for major changes in the way the Internet will be governed in the future.
Founded on the principles of freedom, openness, and networking, the Internet has developed with fairly little involvement from governments, compared to other areas of social and economic activity, and has largely been the terrain of the private sector and individual users. In the regulatory realm, the Internet is unlike other forms of telecommunications, which have traditionally been administered by national governments. By contrast, state governments have little involvement in international Internet governance, which is currently in the hands of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
ICANN, a “not-for-profit, public-benefit corporation with participants from all over the world dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable, and interoperable,” is responsible for coordinating the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which provides technical services critical to the operation of the Internet’s underlying address book, the Domain Name System (DNS). ICANN also defines policies on how to manage the “names and numbers” of the Internet. For example, in recent years, ICAAN has decided to release hundreds of new top-level domains (from .media to .vegas), thus challenging the monopoly of the .com, .org, .net, and other familiar website extensions. ICANN’s power to dictate policy on top-level domains makes it a key institution in global Internet governance. The stakes of shifting this power to the ITU will become increasingly evident when the debate turns to more controversial issues such as the introduction of .gay domains, which socially conservative regimes may oppose.
Russia has long been one of the world’s most vocal proponents of increasing state control over cyberspace and, more broadly, redefining the rules and norms of global Internet governance. In September 2011, alongside China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, Russia released a Resolution for the UN General Assembly entitled, “Information code of conduct for information security.” With a preamble that argues that “policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of States,” the document lays out a 12-point voluntary code of conduct that would increase state control over the domestic communication space. The governments pledged to curb “the dissemination of information that incites terrorism, secessionism or extremism or that undermines other countries’ political, economic and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment.” In essence, the resolution would give authorities almost unrestricted controls over cyber activity within their geographical borders.
Similarly, in December 2012, Russia, sparked a major debate on Internet freedom and control at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai, this time acting in concert with Algeria, China, Egypt, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. Russia proposed adding an article to the ITU Constitution that reaffirms people’s “unrestricted” right to use international telecom services, but adds the following clause: “except in cases where … telecommunication services are used to … interfere in the internal affairs or undermine the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states.” Article 8A.4 also challenges citizens’ right to communicate when telecom outlets are used “to divulge information of a sensitive nature.” Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan all signed the proposal.
The aim of both proposals is to shift power from ICANN to the United Nations’ ITU, increasing the role of states in the governance and administration of the Internet. Currently, nation-states participate in ICANN operations through membership in a non-voting Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) within ICANN’s multi-stakeholder structure. The GAC’s mandate is to “provide advice on the activities of ICANN as they relate to concerns of governments,” and the Corporation commits to “duly taking” such advice. Under this arrangement, nation-states’ power to influence global Internet governance is limited.
Experts are divided about whether Russia’s proposals present a real threat to the development of a global, free, and open Internet, where the right to communicate is paramount. Practically speaking, governments already possess the regulatory and practical powers to constrict the free flow of information, should they wish to do so. Moreover, even if these changes were made to the ITU Constitution, it would still be up to national governments to decide whether and how to implement them.
On the other hand, some experts warn that the potential “damage such proposals could do to unsettled Internet policy issues related to anonymity and online identity, privacy and personal data protection, as well as Internet content regulation are enormous and can hardly be exaggerated.” Ultimately, Russia’s proposals are, perhaps, less significant in terms of the immediate dangers they pose, as these remain contested and ambiguous, more than they are a signal of a decisive shift towards the nationalization and fragmentation of the Internet — a shift that is manifested through the spread of the so-called two-tiered Internet, which has already taken hold in several Eurasian nations.
Two-tiered internet: Boosting telecom development, but at a price
The development of a two-tiered Internet system in an increasing number of countries worldwide is a byproduct of the push for the nationalization of Internet governance. In a two-tier system, domestic traffic is given preferential treatment over international traffic, through regulations requiring ISPs to limit bandwidth for external Internet resources; this measure also drives up the cost of accessing external traffic.
Making domestic traffic cheaper and easier to access, the two-tiered Internet is designed to encourage the growth of local Internet resources, which often struggle to compete with well-established foreign rivals. In the case of Eurasia, the competition is primarily with Russian content and providers. Making Internet access more affordable is a particularly compelling strategy in the region’s poorer nations, where, as noted earlier, financial barriers still prevent many from going online on a regular basis.
Beneficial in some ways, the two-tiered system is not without its dangers. It greatly simplifies the government’s control over internal resources, not least because they are physically hosted within the country, often by state-funded data centers. The substantial cost difference between local and international traffic also encourages the distribution of pirated materials. Since many entertainment materials are too expensive for individuals to download directly from foreign websites, they are downloaded once and then distributed for free on domestic networks.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have both embraced the two-tier system. Kazakhstan’s cyber policies reflect growing nationalism and a will to promote the Kazakh identity in a nation that authorities envisage as highly connected in the near future. Officials have set the ambitious target of achieving 75% Internet penetration by 2020;57 it is clear that promoting Kazakh national identity online is an integral part of this vision.
In Kyrgyzstan, internal Internet resources are about 10 times cheaper than external traffic, and in some cases are free of charge. Registration of local Internet resources in the .kg national domain is not compulsory, but happens naturally as a result of economic incentives. Domestic ISPs are interconnected, and each can apply to freely connect local network traffic to the Internet exchange point (IXP), a physical infrastructure that by interconnecting ISPs reduces traffic and increases connection quality, which significantly cuts the costs of operation and fosters development of the sector. Mobile operators in Kyrgyzstan do not differentiate between internal and external traffic.
Read Part IX: A future of growth and contestation