From falling in love to falling into debt

It is not an exaggeration to say that the internet has entered into almost all spheres of our lives today. From falling in love to falling into debt, organising your wedding to the next mass demonstration, getting to know our rights to more efficient delivery of government services, the internet has changed the way we relate, engage and participate in the different dimensions of social, cultural, economic and political life.

Gita Sen spoke about the IT revolution being the driving force behind the way global financial flows has shaped international financial institutions and its role in global governance, and it’s worryingly true. I remember tuning into a radio programme randomly after the first AWID planning meeting, listening to the host speak about the development of newer, better, and faster technologies that can give currency speculators great advantage in assessing risks and making that crucial split second decision. In short, who has access to the best technologies has the greatest advantage in a world where money is intangible and moving at the speed of gigabytes.

But who governs the internet? How are decisions made about this key infrastructure and system that seems to support such an overwhelming part of our everyday lives? And what are feminists and women’s rights activists doing about it?

Short history

To understand this, a short history of the way the internet has been developed needs to be delved into.

It began as a military project at the height of the cold war in 1969 to create a communications network that can resist a nuclear attack.

It then moved to the hands of engineers and academics who wanted to enable immediate and quick communication and information exchange, and developed open codes that were resolutely not copyrighted so they could modify, experiment and build on it.

In 1974, TCP/IP was developed by computer scientists as an open protocol which is the common language used by computers information and data from one computer to another, which is the basis of the internet.

Until 1990, the internet was mostly used by small groups of interested people and techies to communicate with each other. In 1991, the world wide web was created. In 1994, netscape became the first popular web browser that brought the internet into the screens in an easy and accessible way to everyday computer users.

In 1995, SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption was developed by Netscape, making it safer to conduct financial transactions like credit card payments online. Yahoo! and Ebay was launched in the same year. Google was launched in 1998 and is now so popular it’s become an verb.

In the early 2000s, the term web 2.0 became used to describe the increasingly user-driven and interactive functions of the internet, which are key features of blogging, content sharing and social networking sites. In 2004, Facebook was opened to college students. Now it has more than 800 million users, 1/7th of the world’s population. Twitter has 100 million.

In 2008, the first so-called internet elections took place in the US, with almost every candidate having a twitter and facebook account, and crowdsourcing campaign donations online. Yes we can.

Who governs the internet?

In short, all of the above. Because of the open, distributed, networked and extraterritorial characteristics of the internet, it has so far resisted unilateral control by a single institution or body.

For example, ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – is a non-profit, self-regulated body that manages the root name server of the internet. It has a convoluted history, and an equally complex governing structure, comprising of the private sector, technical community, civil society and governments. Notably, governments do not have overriding power in its policy decisions.

IETF – the internet engineering task force – theoretically an open community of engineers, vendors, operators and researchers, develop new standards and innovations for the internet which impacts on things like how our modems are designed.

ITU – the International Telecommunications Union – the main UN body in this picture, has a role to play in developing international communications standards.

The state entered into the fora of internet governance relatively belatedly. As can be seen from the brief history of the internet, the main actors were made up of first techies and developers, then users of the internet played and still play a large role in shaping the internet by creating and sharing content, developing sofware – especially through the open source software movement, and defining shared codes of conduct online, then the private sector – primarily finance and entertainment, and then the state, realising the immense reach and power of the internet, making an anxious entry into the fora of who should govern this key global resource.

Visibility and position of women’s participation/multistakeholder characteristic of internet governance

It is important to pause here and reflect on each of these stakeholder groups, the visibility and position of women’s participation. If none of the acronyms and institutions that I mentioned earlier sound familiar in women’s rights movements and discourse, it is because we are not sufficiently present.

In 2003, the ITU under the auspices of UN organised the World Summit on Information Societies. This can also be read as a bid by ITU to expand its role from governance of the radio and telecommunications to include the internet. The 2 things that could not be agreed upon after the 2 phases of this summit was on who and how should internet infrastructure development be financed to ensure a more equitable distribution of access, and on who and how the internet should be governed. As a result, the IGF – Internet Governance Forum – was formed as an annual multistakeholder dialogue process to discuss and share best practices on emerging aspects of this issue.

The multistakeholder characteristic of internet governance processes and institutions is one of the innovations in global governance that was initially received with great optimism by actors involved. Even the ITU, which is an intergovernmental body, is anxious to demonstrate its openness to academia and the private sector in its membership to gain credibility in its bid to become the main global internet governance body. So far the system seems to be working, and innovations and developments are rapid without being burdened by the bureaucratic speed of coming to state agreements. Internet access is increasing everyday, especially through the use of mobile phones, which have been said to benefit women especially given inequality in income and purchasing power.

Closing the door

But this picture is rapidly changing. Lobbyists in the entertainment, music and drug industry are playing an active role in closed door negotiations like the recent Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that can result in serious limitations to the free exchange of information and content online through the protection of industry’s intellectual property rights. At the same time, states are spending millions of dollars purchasing filtering and surveillance technology from private companies, especially from the US, Europe & China.

To use sexuality as a site for unravelling the trends, more and more countries are passing laws to restrict access to internet content that relates to issues of sexuality. Private companies like Internet Service Providers are given the role as policemen to make difficult, and often opaque decisions on filtering what we can access online.

Yesterday at a session, a participant from Poland mentioned that it is impossible to gain information online on abortion. Microsoft’s search engine Bing censors a host of sexuality related terms in their Arabic version. In Indonesia, a LGBT site was blocked under anti-pornography laws. In Brazil, Google signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government to release private data about its users on Orkut if suspected of engaging in child pornography after failing to resist on grounds of jurisdiction.

Facebook hires thousands of low-paid individuals in developing countries to censor and take down “offensive” content on their site, including pictures of women breastfeeding.

In our research in Lebanon, foreign aid in supporting the development of national internet infrastructure seems to be accompanied with policy requirements on the grounds of morality.

I was at a meeting last week and spoke with an FBI agent about bilateral agreements that enables police cooperation and sharing of surveillance information about internet users to capture “pedophiles” – a discourse that is increasingly assumed, un-problematised and ubiquitous in internet regulation debates. There is very little analysis and framing on sexual rights and sexual citizenship in these debates.

Arguments on the grounds of protecting public morals provide states with the necessary legitimacy to intervene, and play a paternalistic regulatory role on the internet. In the meantime, governments like IBSA – India, Brazil and South Africa – are calling for a new global intergovernmental body with oversight over internet governance policy decisions, replacing the current plurality of institutions and stakeholders.

States role

But is greater state power in this area necessarily a negative thing? Self-regulated institutions like ICANN rely on open market principles as its framework. Huge transnational companies that provide much of the “free” services that we rely on online is driven by profits, not public interest. Multi-stakeholder forums do not remove existing structural inequalities, meaning not all stakeholders participating at the table are equal, even if formally, they are given the same say. There’s virtually no women present in IETF for example.

If the internet is a global public resource that can have such an influencing impact on so many areas of our lives shouldn’t states have a greater role to play to ensure that the internet is freely and equally accessible to all? To provide food for thought, I’ll end with 3 scenarios:

1) The first time the internet was specifically debated at the UN HRC, is 2011, last year, through the UN Special Rapp on Freedom of Expression and Opinions report.

2) Time and time again, when human rights has been proposed by civil society and the technical community as the main theme for the IGF, it has been shot down by governments.

3) State intervention at national internet regulation thus far, is infused with attempts to censor and restrict content and to employ greater amounts of surveillance, on the grounds of national security, public morality and protection of copyright.

If States were given the overriding role, then what kind of internet would we have? If not, how can we hold giant multinational corporations accountable? And where would women, in all of our diversity, stand?


Who governs the internet