The end of civilization as we know it?


I know plagiarism is a bad thing. However, it is going to be difficult to avoid it with this blog because my piece is so heavily dependent on the writings of one man: Professor Wolfgang Kleinwächter of the University of Aarhus.

Wolfgang is a world authority on two things: internet governance and soccer. Sadly, other than by saying how delighted I am that the internet is not run by Sepp Blatter or anything that looks like FIFA, I cannot find a way, yet, to combine the two topics. This is a pity because, despite his many self-evident virtues, Wolfgang still hasn’t quite fully understood every aspect of the greatness that is Leeds United.

The magnum opus

Wolfgang has just penned what must surely rank as at least a mini magnum opus. “Internet Governance Outlook 2012: Cold War or Constructive Dialogue?”, is published free on various lists and on the excellent .nxt site for a small fee. It is an astonishing piece of scholarship and we owe Wolfgang a great debt for bringing it all together and putting it into such a readable format.

50 VIMs

Wolfgang takes us through the coming year highlighting several of what he describes as 50 “VIMs”: very important meetings which could impact upon the future of the internet. He adds that this is obviously going to be a good year for the travel business. Indeed it is.

That one statistic alone tells us something quite important. 50 VIMs. There is a phenomenal amount of activity taking place. A wide range of institutions seem (finally) to have woken up to the importance of the internet. This is another example of “Be Careful What You Wish For”. Those who wanted more people to engage have definitely had their wish granted. In spades.

Head above the parapet

The more the internet’s head protruded above the parapet the more it was bound, eventually, to attract the attention of policy makers of every stripe, high and low. And protrude it has. The internet has changed beyond all recognition. It is no longer the property of a handful of geeks. It is part of the warp and weft, the very fabric of modern society. People who don’t even know what an FTP server is or what “TCP/IP” stands for now use it every day. Amazing. Who’d have thought it possible?

The internet as an extra channel on TV

When every new TV is sold with an Ethernet port and Wi-Fi built in as standard I think the transition from Ivory Tower to High Street will be more or less complete. That moment is not far away. This will transform public perceptions of the internet. They will start to think about the internet as an extension of or part of the world of television, but with a few extremely useful extra twiddly bits that allow them, for example, to order the groceries or buy the kids’ school books and get them delivered.

It is not inconceivable that the idea of “the internet” as a separate or distinct entity will fade from our consciousness altogether as it dissolves into the background of  modern life and is taken for granted in the same way as, well, TV is, or the availability of water and electricity. We’ll only notice it’s there when it isn’t, when it goes wrong.

The internet as TV, the internet in family living rooms, to begin with will simply underline the heterogeneous nature of the beast. Perhaps we have tried to make the internet be too many things to too many people and some of these are simply incompatible.  Wolfgang says

……it is not possible to slice the internet into different parts.

That may be exactly what we have to do if we are to find a way of preserving all that is best about it.

Those VIMs again

Only a dedicated specialist such as the good professor has any sort of hope of being able to keep track of, let alone attend any but a small fraction of the meetings that are currently on the calendar, never mind those that  no doubt will be added as 2012 wears on.

Admittedly a good proportion of the meetings are open only to “professionals” whose companies or Governments pay them to attend to protect their turf or advance their cause. But even the meetings which purport to be open to civil society participation or which grant observer status are too overwhelming for anyone other than an unemployed and narrowly-focused plutocrat to grace with their presence.

The UN is where it’s at

The United Nations stands centre stage. One of the meetings has already happened. It was in Geneva at the beginning of January. That’s the “Working Group on Improvements to the Internet Governance Forum”. This working group was established, bear with me, when the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development asked the Chair of the Commission on Science and Technology to look into how the IGF was doing. The Working Group is meeting again this month. Things are hotting up and will culminate in a session of the UN in autumn in New York.

This meeting, or rather what this meeting represents, is only the first of the many things Wolfgang worries about. He clearly sees the potential for it all to go horribly wrong as, through the UN, Governments start ganging up and asserting themselves. As he puts it

There are numerous forces and stakeholders across the globe (with) all manner of good or bad arguments for change. While nothing stands still and while the internet needs… constant enhancement and improvement, the risk is high that the proposed introduction of political or economic safeguards to repair some of the internet’s weaknesses will lead to unintended side effects with the potential for massive collateral damage.


Step forward India. In November, 2011, they proposed that the UN establish a “Committee for Internet-Related Policies” (CIRP) which might ultimately “facilitate negotiations on treaties, conventions and agreements on internet related policies” and perhaps even “undertake arbitration and dispute resolution”. In May there is going to be an open meeting to discuss what a fully-fledged CIRP might do.

The Shanghai Group

And then there’s the “Shanghai Group” consisting of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Within the labyrinths of the UN they seem to be promoting the idea of a “Code of Conduct” which would lay out

…..norms and rules guiding the behaviour of states in the information space.

This sits comfortably with a separate proposal, this time a wholly Russian one, for a new and legally binding “Convention on International Information Security.”

Happily for the Russians another UN body called the “Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Society” is chaired by someone from the Russian Foreign Ministry and they have already secured agreement for this topic to be discussed at a meeting of the General Assembly, again later this year. 2012 is going to be big for internet governance folks.

The ITU and the IGF

The ITU’s “World Conference on International Communications” (WCIT) meets towards the end of 2012, not forgetting, of course, the Internet Governance Forum itself. This year it is in Azerbaijan but the date has not yet been confirmed. Then there are the many national and regional IGFs which have sprung up. The IGF-related meetings are expressly excluded from decision-making. They celebrate multi-stakeholder dialogue but they look increasingly as if they will be drowned out by all of the other groups bidding for a slice of the cyber pie and these other groups seem bent on having real powers.

And there’s more

The OECD, the Council of Europe, UNESCO, UNICEF, the EU, the Commonwealth and several other institutions fill in the constellation of bodies which see the internet as a legitimate dimension of the political space for which they have a responsibility of some sort or other. On top of that we have a myriad national and other intergovernmental bodies also doing what they think is their bit.

If you want a fuller picture you might try looking at the FOSI Grid.

Everybody’s doing it

The point, anyway, is obvious. If they are not already there political institutions in every part of the world are marching towards the internet. Whatever it is that the internet industry thought they were doing to try to convince everyone of the preciousness of their creation, of the importance of self-regulation, it plainly has not been working.

Head for the hills

If these processes progress very much further my bet would be that several key institutions, particularly in Europe, North America and other parts of the developed world, will conclude that the game is up, the global internet is doomed and there will be a scramble, a stampede to safeguard a range of national, regional or specific commercial interests. I predict that this will not lead to the end of civilization as we know it but something very valuable will have been lost. No doubt about that.

Free markets cannot resolve everything

The free market ideology which underpins the philosophy of many of self-regulation’s most fervent proponents is only actually alive and well in a handful of countries around the world. If you mention the internet in some places straight away it conjures up images of Coca Cola, Hollywood, globalization and US foreign policy. This is not guaranteed to endear it to everybody.

In the end, therefore, one of the internet’s most trumpeted virtues and strengths – the inability to control or direct it from a single point – looks like it could be its undoing. By failing to deal with the internet’s manifest weaknesses we will have paved the way for those who would, not destroy it but perhaps radically alter it in a way that fits in with their religious or political views.

If I have one criticism of Wolfgang’s article it is where he says

…the internet works and was able to accommodate unbelievable growth from two million to two billion users within 20 years without any significant problems.

I guess it depends what you call a problem.

Elsewhere Wolfgang suggests

Like a knife in the hand of a murderer, the internet is no more than an instrument. Trying to deal with crime by focusing on knives makes no sense. 

In point of fact quite a few countries do regulate the sale of certain kinds of knives, in the belief that, absent such regulation, the incidence of knife crime would be worse. It is true that the internet is an instrument, but it is also a great deal more than that. The internet is also a platform and to the extent that we can limit the potential for that  platform to assist evil doers we should. It is ridiculous to argue that we ought not to act because anything we do could have unforeseen and unintended consequences. Not acting has consequences too. We have to make the best judgements we can based on the available evidence.

De Tocqueville said “we get the Governments we deserve”. Wolfgang ‘s implicit warning to the industry and civil society is that if we don’t buck up we will get the internet we deserve, and it won’t be as good as the one we have currently got. I am with Wolfgang 100% on that but if all we are promised is the status quo we will part company again.

Cyber Canute

King Canute is famous in English history because he accepted that kings only had limited powers. He demonstrated this by taking his throne to the beach and commanding the tides to stop but, as he knew they would, the tides ignored him. Canute was teaching his sycophantic courtiers a lesson.

Wolfgang Kleinwächter is not Cyber Canute. He is not claiming that he or anyone else can stop the tide of history but he is definitely urging us to think about coastal defences before it’s too late.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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