“We are concerned about Russians pushing their authoritarian digital agenda on all forums around the world,” a senior Biden administration official explained in an email. It’s global and it’s relentless, and when we step back even a little bit, it fills that void. He said the State Department has conveyed to United Nations officials in New York its legitimate concern about a United Nations takeover of Internet governance.
Russia’s latest bid for top-down control of the Internet came in a resolution tabled for next weeks meeting in Geneva of the governing council of the United Nations International Telecommunication Union. Moscow’s proposal seeks changes in governance to prevent Internet fragmentation, according to a document posted on the ITU website.
What fragmentation is Russia talking about? The internet has been working pretty well for decades. If there are any blockades, they are those introduced by authoritarian governments such as Russia and China. But as you read Moscow’s proposal, it becomes clear that Russia is doubling down on its past calls for global political regulation as an alternative to what it claims is US control of cyberspace.
There is currently no platform for practical interstate dialogue to discuss the possibility of coordinating the activities of states in regulating the Internet of potential threats to network integrity and reliability and preventing regulatory fragmentation, argues the Russian document in an English translation .
A reader of this bland bureaucratic language may forget that it was Russia that used the Internet to subvert elections in the United States, as well as the runoff ballot in many European countries. Or that it is Russia that has refused to sign the 2001 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, ratified by 68 countries. This fox, it seems, never gets tired of attacking the chicken coop.
The surprise is that Russia’s ideas about global political regulation appear to have gotten some support from Guterres. In a May policy note to advance his plan for a Global Digital Compact, the secretary-general supported the existing multi-stakeholder governance approach. But he also voiced some of the same regulatory themes as Moscow.
There must be a collective effort to ensure that regional, national or industry initiatives, however well-intentioned, do not further fragment the Internet, Guterres wrote, without documenting any existing fragmentation. He went on to argue that we need a multi-stakeholder agreement on the net to handle such problems.
The United Nations is just one player in this firmament, but it is the only global entity that can convene and facilitate the necessary collaboration, Guterres said. His solution appears to be his pact, which the Biden administration official says could be adopted at the UN’s planned future summit in September 2024.
The Biden administration is working with allies to make sure internet governance remains broad and bottom-up. The senior official explains: Many non-governmental stakeholders and some governments are concerned that New York-based political processes will lack the experience and expertise to address these issues appropriately and will simply open the door to intergovernmental and top-down scrutiny. down and/or mired in political proxy debates. To many, the Secretary General’s Policy Brief confirmed this suspicion about a New York takeover.
A skeptical review of Guterress’s proposals comes from Konstantinos Komaitis, an expert on internet policy at the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based think tank. In a recent article, he said: The fact that the secretary-general is aiming to funnel Internet political issues through the United Nations multilateral system is alarming. When looking at the issues that the Global Digital Compact will seek to address, one cannot help but wonder whether the ultimate goal is to create a centralized system in which the United Nations is at the apex.
Russia itself has actually been a beneficiary of the current decentralized governance system, which is overseen by an organization known as ICANN. Fiona Alexander, a distinguished fellow at the American university’s Internet Governance Lab, noted at a recent United Nations meeting that ICANN has rejected proposals to cut off Russia’s Internet access after its invasion of Ukraine, because he wanted to protect a single global Internet.
Ironically, Russian internet users were better protected in the internet governance ecosystem than they would have been if decisions had been made in this building, Alexander told the UN audience.
These arcane political debates are the trench warfare of the modern tech world, but they receive little attention outside government bureaucracies. I don’t see any visible public pushback at Guterress’ Global Digital Compact and I’m concerned, because the United Nations is all about politics, says Alexander.
It would be a terrible mistake if Russia, after gagging its citizens and invading its neighbor, had a United Nations platform to write the rules of the road for the digital technology that will shape the 21st century.
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