Governance and the Internet

Orwell, Assange and  Snowden

Skill testing question…..what do these three have in common? All have been concerned with the state using technology to spy on and control its citizens. When George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, he recognised the issues, but had no idea of how the technology would develop to allow the state and others to spy on and influence citizens. When Julian Assange and Edward Snowden showed what and how the US government in 2014 actually collected, stored and used information in to spy on people at home and abroad, they confirmed Orwell’s warnings. Today, Assange shelters in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid arrest and deportation to Sweden; to avoid US authorities, Snowden resides in Moscow, where he was recently interviewed by John Oliver for a US television broadcast. Snowden had been the subject of a documentary film, CitizenFour.

In January 2013, Laura Poitras received an encrypted e-mail from a stranger who called himself Citizen Four. In it, he offered her inside information about illegal wiretapping practices of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies. Poitras had already been working for several years on a film about monitoring programs in the US that were the result of the September 11 attacks. In June 2013, accompanied by investigative journalist Glen Greenwald and The Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, she went to Hong Kong with her camera for the first meeting with the stranger, who identified himself as Edward Snowden. Several other meetings followed. The recordings gained from the meetings form the basis of the film. (Wikipedia).


Fast forward to today and the topic of the internet, what it is, what it does and what governments should do about it is the subject of numerous studies which bring together specialists from different disciplines to provide their analysis and recommendations. This material is extensive and often repetitive. One example of a paper providing an informed succinct survey of many of the issues is Melissa Hathaway, Connected Choices: How the Internet is Challenging Sovereign Decisions (Paper No. 11, April 2015 for the Global Commission on Internet Governance, CIGI and Chatham House. The Economist provides informed content of developing issues in the field.

The question posed here is whether we have been here before in dealing with a similar range of issues concerning the introduction of new communications technology. If so, then the caveat that “everything old is new again” may be a useful point of departure in discussing internet governance.

The Internet provides a means to create, store and transmit information which can be used for multiple purposes – messaging, banking, education, health services, news, book and magazine publishing, blogs, entertainment, delivery of government services, control of power grids, national defense, making and breaking criminal activities. Anything that can have an e- placed in front of it has internet implications.

Each of the listed activities has a formal and/or informal governance structure, sometimes one or more government departments or agencies, or governance organized by those involved in the activity. Thus, in Canada, the CRTC does it for telecommunications, and private producers for deciding whether food is “organic” or “gluten free.”

Given the pervasiveness of the internet, it may be ambitious to expect that it would be either easy or possible to arrange for its governance as a whole, as opposed to a particular activity which is internet related. Exhibit 1 summarises the difference between governance and government.


Exhibit 1.

“Governance refers to “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language.” It relates to “the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions.” 

To distinguish the term governance from government: a government is a formal body invested with the authority to make decisions in a given political system. ” (Wikipedia)


The case of publishing

Consider publishing as one activity impacted by the internet, and the governing regimes which have grown up over time. Publishing has a long history from development of speaking, creation of letters, alphabets and words, preparation of documents first by hand, then the printing press and now electronic word processing and distribution.

Scribes in monasteries fought the introduction of the printing press which went through changes from the setting of lead type to the use of typewriters and computers. In the UK, it took a Rupert Murdoch to break the grip of unions representing lead typesetters, some of whom were retrained to type on keyboards. This was a labour issue related to changing technology and largely unconnected with regime change except for any relevant labour laws.


In this industry, governance comes to the fore when considering copyright:

 “The history of copyright law starts with early privileges and monopolies granted to printers of books. The British Statute of Anne1710, full title “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned”, was the first copyrights statute. Initially copyright law only applied to the copying of books. Over time other uses such as translations and derivative works were made subject to copyright and copyright now covers a wide range of works, including maps, performances, pantings, photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures and computer programs.”


Other rights, such as the moral rights of authors, evolved to increase the returns to authorship. Copyright was also used as censorship to assist the sovereign in managing news and opinions.

The terms of compensation and length of copyright ownership rights are constantly debated today, with authors lobbying to extend the protection granted to them by law. Note, a similar argument relates to patent rights, and is used by pharmaceutical and other firms to protect their intellectual property.

The accumulated protection has been weakened or undermined by the internet. It has reduced the ability of copyright owners to protect their rights. There are continual attempts to revise the laws and copyright regimes which exist to deal with electronic publishing and the use of material. This is red meat for the legal profession, which is paid to protect both owners and those seeking to introduce more competition into the intellectual property market. Economists have not done badly either as consultants in this debate.

A history of the regime for authorship, publishing and distribution, shows the way the regime has changed and is now affected by the new technology. In order to establish governance for the internet as a whole, it will be necessary to address each aspect of its impact, that is each industrial, social and political activity which is affected by it. Constructing one overall regime would seem to be a challenge to say the least. And considering there are around 200 countries in the world, each of which claims sovereignty in some sense, the challenge may be overwhelming.


The case of broadcasting

Fast forward to Canada in 2015, where debate swirls around the domestic regime for television. The broadcasting regulator has ruled that Canadians should, at last, be allowed to pick and pay for the channels they want to watch – as they do for food when they buy groceries in the supermarket. Previously, the regime has required that consumers be offered TV channels in bundles regardless of whether they wanted them, and some of these channels would be required to carry a certain amount of content that was branded as Canadian.

Branding meant application of a formula regarding such things as the nationality of the inputs used in the program. Requiring Canadians to view these programs proved impossible to enforce, and is even more so now with services like Netflix, YouTube and material available on the web.

The point is that the regime for broadcasting has evolved with a complex set of rules which benefited certain groups but ignored the interest of others, viewers in this case. The same thing is likely to happen when developing a regime for the wide range of activities which make use of the internet. Governance of individual activities is often complex, governance of the whole will be a Herculean task. Today about 40% of the world’s population of seven billion have internet access. In the next few years the figure is likely to rise to 80%.


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