Some unintended consequences of NSA snooping

One of the least-discussed aspects of the Snowden revelations is the catastrophic damage they are doing to US foreign policy in one important area, namely Internet governance.

This is one of the big unsolved problems in the international arena because of the disproportionate power that the US wields in the governance of the Net. The reasons for this are largely historical: the Net was an American creation, and it emerged from a Pentagon project, the Arpanet. In the beginning it was largely an American — and, to some extent, European — project, and so it made sense for the informal governance arrangements (under which, for example, domain names were managed) set up in the early days to continue.

But as the Internet became a truly global system, the old arrangements began to look increasingly odd. They also began to irritate some of the bigger powers like China and Russia, who couldn’t see why a global system should continue to be run by a single, ageing superpower. Why shouldn’t the Internet be governed by an international body — like the United Nations, through one of its agencies, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)? These stirrings reached a peak at the World Conference on International Telecommunications held last December in Dubai, where there were attempts to loosen the grip of the US on Internet governance. These attempts were robustly rebuffed by the US and its allies, but it was clear that this is an issue that won’t go away.

The problem is that while the current governance system is absurd in a global context, nobody has yet come up with a convincing alternative. Or, to put it another way, it ain’t broke but it still needs fixing. The ‘obvious’ solution — to hand the responsibility over to the UN — would be nuts, because it would mean handing over the Net to a sclerotic, incoherent institution in which Robert Mugabe’s government and a host of other unsavoury regimes have a vote that counts as much as a vote from a democracy. It would be like giving a delicate clock to a monkey.

But, in the end, we will have to have new governance arrangements that meet two criteria: reflecting the truly global nature of the system; and protecting its essential features from the tampering of unsavoury regimes.

Which is where the NSA revelations come in. They demonstrate to the world that the US is an unsavoury regime too. And that it isn’t a power that can be trusted not to abuse its privileged position. They also undermine heady US rhetoric about the importance of a free and open Internet. Nobody will ever again take seriously US Presidential or State Department posturing on Internet freedom. So, in the end, the NSA has made it more difficult to resist the clamour for different – and possibly even more sinister – arrangements for governing the Net.

[HT to Robin Stenham for his comment.]