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section heading icon     geopolitics

This page looks at geopolitical relations (aka big power politics) in governance of the DNS and cyberspace.

It covers -

subsection heading icon     introduction

Shashi Tharoor, UN Under Secretary-General for information and communications, sniffed at the December 2003 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that

Unlike the French Revolution, the Internet revolution has lots of liberty, some fraternity and no equality

That claim represents a decidedly romantic view of both the 1790s and 2003, and reflects moves to extend the ambit of the ITU - discussed in a separate profile - while reducing the power of ICANN.

However, it is one that has attracted support from civil society scholars and activists such as Noam Chomsky, with arguments about a 'New Information Order' and US dominance of the 'global infosphere' through a hegemony that encompasses infrastructures, production and intellectual property at the expense of fundamental human rights.

Reality is somewhat more complex.

subsection heading icon     who's got the big stick

As we suggested on the preceding page of this guide, the internet poses particular challenges for traditional national and international regulatory regimes and dispute resolution mechanisms.

It is at once grounded on terra firma and at the same time a realm beyond place (or merely grounded in another jurisdiction's terra firma). It can be used for activities on which there's little international agreement or capacity for the enforcement of sanctions on a state by state basis.

As a thread running through the fabric of global markets and global enterprises it is the subject of contention by a rich range of government and nongovernment actors, including major corporations, the American Bar Association, the ITU, ICANN, WIPO, neo-nazis and consumer rights groups.

Some of those actors have more power - or merely a higher profile - than others and many perform on several stages. That's a sometimes a problem because bodies that serve the interests of a constituency in one theatre do not necessarily have the competence (or legitimacy) to do so in another. The technical nature of some governance activity (eg development of commercial law and engineering standards) means that it's attracted less attention and less criticism than matters of lower importance.

Emphasis on consensus and transparency in organisations such as ICANN has arguably favoured individuals and organisations that don't necessary have substantial support, rewarding persistence and vehemence rather than cogent argument. Some organisations - and individuals - have 'punched above their weight' simply because they have mastered the art of the sound grab.

As we have suggested in discussing ICANN other interests have been able to develop a hegemony in policy development through expertise in networking and the creation/modification of policy documents, underpinned by the resources to attend every meeting and lobby decisionmakers. That is consistent with the analysis in works highlighted later in this guide.

Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy (London: Earthscan 2002) by Peter Drahos is for example particularly useful for highlighting the importance of process and the range of actions, from street theatre at public fora (now increasingly deconstructed or echoed in realtime through mechanisms such as ICANNBlog) through to iterative negotiations over several years about statements of principle and frameworks such as TRIPS.

subsection heading icon     the nation state in the GII

In international law - whether regarding war crimes, trade barriers or information policy - all states are equal but some states are more equal than others.

David Held's elegant encapsulation of the traditional ('Westphalian') model of international relations suggests -

a) the world consists of, and is divided by, sovereign states which recognise no superior authority
b) the process of law-making, the settlement of disputes and law enforcement are largely in the hands of individual states
c) international law is oriented towards the establishment of minimal rules of coexistence; the creation of enduring relationships among states and people is an aim, but only to the extent that it allows national objectives to be met
d) responsibility for cross-border wrongful acts is a "private matter" concerning only those affected
e) all states are equal before the law; legal rules do not take account of asymmetries of power
f) differences among states are often settled by force; the principle of effective power holds sway. Virtually no fetters exist to curb the resort to force; international legal standards offer minimal protection
g) the maximisation of impediments to state freedom is the "collective priority"

Tensions in that model are exemplified in the 2002 call by ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi for development of a international cyberspace treaty.

That treaty, complementing developments such as the proposed Hague Convention, would establish global rules on matters such as taxation of e-commerce, offensive content, copyright and crime prevention, since

if countries have different rules, some countries will gain a commercial advantage over others, fair competition will be hindered due to the spread of illegal products, and countries without rules could become a hotbed of crime.

It was suggested that such rules would be particularly "helpful for developing countries in Africa and Asia when they draw up their information technology laws".

Utsumi commented that

Cyberspace is a new land, without frontiers and without a government yet. Cyberspace is not a parallel universe: it interacts with our own world and poses many new challenges for policy-makers. For instance we are increasingly dependent on cyberspace, but how can we protect against international cyber-terrorism? Who can police cyberspace and how? If we pay taxes in the real world, should we also pay them for our transactions in cyberspace? And to whom? How? How can we control crimes conducted in cyberspace? Which jurisdiction should take precedence? How can freedom of expression or other fundamental human rights be guaranteed in cyberspace? Is there a danger that some would seek to control content? How can we build user trust and confidence in cyberspace?

There may well exist national policies and laws on these issues, but their effectiveness is limited by the fact that they only apply within national borders. Yet many of our economic transactions and our intellectual activities are already conducted in cyberspace, without clear rules and regulations.

We need a new global governance framework. Developing policy frameworks for cyberspace - to deal with issues of cyber-crime, security, taxation, intellectual property protection, or privacy - is something like establishing a new government in the New World.

Those concerns are highlighted in Anthony Judge in the 2001 paper Coherent Policy-making Beyond the Information Barrier but questioned in Saskia Sassen's The Impact of the Internet on Sovereignty: Real and Unfounded Worries paper and and in Philip Agre's characteristically thoughtful The Dynamics of Policy in a Networked World paper.

subsection heading icon     north-south or west-west

It's become a commonplace that the 'North' - in particular the US, and alignments of particular corporate interests within the US - drives the development and implementation of policy regarding cyberspace: serving as chief actor, writing the script, even providing many of the theatres for emerging economies in the south.

Kenneth Cukier's 1998 paper on Rich Man, Poor Man: The Geopolitics of Internet Policy Making comments that

it is likely that the representatives from the Internet community and government who play a role in setting Internet polices will come from regions where Internet use is most prevalent -- the industrialized world. Since developed economies today have a greater stake in the outcome of the current Internet evolution, it is understandable that this is the force driving events. However, there are few incentives for this community to develop policies today that will afford protection for the interests of other regions of the world and the unique issues they face. Also, there are no guarantees that today's institutions will contain mechanisms for less-developed regions to play a policy role in the future when they represent more Internet users than they do today. Indeed, the reverse is true: Today's Internet statesmen have an incentive to set rules that fall in their favor.

Yet a lack of adequate Internet governance representation from developing economies might have dangerous consequences. It could set back Internet growth in those regions, which would deny those people the benefits of the Internet for political and economic empowerment. It risks artificially cutting out a large future constituency of Net users from policy decisions and further entrenches the historical dependence of the developing world on the industrialized economies. For the newly created institutions themselves, a lack of legitimacy to speak for all Internet users might easily escalate into a potential fracture of the global Internet if other nations or regions decided not to respect those bodies.

That said, the arguments against immediately "internationalizing" Internet governance are compelling. Many developing nations today would be "naked usurpers" if they sought an Internet policy-making role. The world of politics and especially foreign affairs deals with the here-and-now, not tomorrow's utopia. Settling controversial questions among stakeholders in the immediacy has often proved to be a better approach than setting up institutions based on future aspirations. Indeed, the Internet itself has often operated in this regard: Roughly written code aimed at resolving an immediate crisis but actually lasting far longer than ever intended is so common as to be a proverb of systems design.

There's been less attention to what might be characterised as West-West divides, with a range of disagreements for example between the European Union and the US regarding such matters as privacy protection, copyright and free speech. Those tensions are evident in the development of international legal frameworks and at a more mechanical level in disagreement about the role of ICANN (particularly in relation to ccTLDs).

One theme in disagreement is that the nature of cyberspace (quaintly expressed as "the spirit of the net") precludes regulation of particular activities or indeed attention to specific concerns such as hate speech. The spirit of the net, in much Western debate, implicitly involves extension of US norms and legal objectives across borders throughout the globe.

Peter Suber, one of the more interesting commentators on scholarly electronic publishing, for example commented that we should worry about countries in which

deference to the sovereignty of other nations is a stronger policy than the freedom to put content on the internet that might offend others.

The Lex Americana as the law of cyberspace should accordingly supersede inconvenient EU Directives and court rulings on racial vilification, rather than vise versa. That assumption is rarely articulated by US cyberlibertarians or congressional chauvinists quizzing ICANN.

subsection heading icon     participation and language

Contrary to some myths about cyberspace, there's no reason to believe that the internet is either innately democratic or democratizing.

Within the DNS, as we've discussed here, individual countries are tending to claim responsibility for administration of the national ccTLDs. A state such as Niue, with a population smaller than the number of corporate lawyers in New York (or indeed in the larger Australian law firms) in principle has the same DNS powers and privileges as those of Germany, China or Canada. However, as Milton Mueller has somewhat acerbically noted, the US still "rules the root" and presumably will do so into the coming decade.

It is unclear whether any of the proposals for a new cyberspace governance body modelled on the UN would

  • more equitably represent national interests (particularly since some states have commodified their powers, transferring policy or operational responsibilities to foreign commercial entities or even individuals, in the case of some smaller Caribbean and African states)
  • address the bureaucratisation of many international governance organisations where power has tacitly gravitated from members to secretariats (which frame the debate, embody expertise and accrete power simply because they're permanent)
  • address broader questions about what's variously been characterised as the cybercrats, cosmocrats and latest 'new class' - the few thousand people in government agencies, NGOs, academia, journalism, law and business who are familiar with policy mechanisms and issues, share a common language (and often share demographics such as education, income and work experience)
  • similarly address broader questions about the language of governance, whether the language of law - considered for example in Looking Back at Law's Century (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 2002) edited by Austin Sarat, Bryant Garth & Robert Kagan - or the language of telecommunication protocols and standards, highlighted by Lawrence Lessig in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York: Basic Books 1999).

Some of those concerns aren't specific to governance of the DNS or cyberspace. Depending on your perspective they're either a condition of modernity or matters that can be addressed through political action involving GII governance as the most strategic (or merely most visible) part of wider social and economic systems - a "refusal of the post-Fordist regime of Social Control" in the words of the delectably zany Empire (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2001) by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri or Ellen Meikins Woods' more succinct Empire of Capital (London: Verso 2003).

subsection heading icon     studies

The literature on global power relations and the interaction of different interests with/across borders is enormous. We've highlighted works of particular relevance to ICANN, the ITU, WIPO and the GII throughout this site and in other pages of this guide.

More general studies include Philip Bobbitt's turgid but often insightful The Shield of Achilles: The Long War & the New Market State (London: Allen Lane 2002). William Wallace's 2002 paper Living with the Hegemon: European Dilemmas and The European Union as a Global Actor (London: Routledge 1999) by Charlotte Bretherton & John Vogler highlight EU issues.

For notions of civil society and global democratisation useful starting points are Alejandro Colas' International Civil Society: A Study of Social Movements in International Relations (Cambridge: Polity 2001), Tony McGrew's paper Transnational Democracy: Theories & Prospects, essays in Democracy's Edges (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1999) edited by Ian Shapiro & Casiano Hacker-Cordon and in Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Economic Institutions and Global Social Movements (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2000) by Robert O'Brien.


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version of December 2003
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