Democracy Lab

Barbarians at the Gate

Are Russia and China trying to take over the Internet? Probably. But so far they aren't having much luck.

For the next few days, the eyes of people who care about the fate of the Internet will be sharply focused on a meeting in Dubai. That's where representatives of the 193 members of the United Nations have come together to talk about a new treaty on global telecommunications. The previous one dates back to 1988, when fax machines were still cool and cell phones (for those lucky few who had them) were the size of a brick.

Normally this isn't the sort of thing that would prompt headlines. But the run-up to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced "wicket") has stirred up some scary talk. If you believe the Wall Street Journal, the Internet is about to be "rewired by bureaucrats" -- a process it likens to "handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla." A commentator at Fox News could barely restrain himself from summoning the black helicopters: "The future of freedom in the 21st century may be about to be deleted, at the click of a mouse." Meanwhile, an op-ed at HuffPost huffed that the very fate of the "open Internet" is at stake.

Remarkable. Finally America's left and right seem to have found a common enemy: the U.N.'s nefarious ninja army of Internet oppressors.

It's gratifying to see that people are so eager to react to perceived threats to the freedom of cyberspace -- something that too many of us probably take for granted. And there's no question that there are major dangers to the openness of the Internet out there. But it's not the United Nations that we should be really worried about. "The real threats to the Internet come from nation states," says Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. "And that includes some of the Western governments as well as the more authoritarian governments."

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) -- the group that is meeting in Dubai this week -- is a bureaucratic organization that was founded in the nineteenth century to ensure that different national telegraph networks could talk to each other. It consists of representatives from each member government. That should give you an idea of how flexible it is.

The ITU is also weak. Each country has one vote, meaning that most proposals will get watered down to a least common denominator. And the ITU has little power to enforce its rules. Despite all the conspiracy theories, the U.N. has never really shown itself to be good at imposing its will on the world. Why would we think that it could have its way with the notoriously protean Internet?

Now, it's true that Russia has floated the idea of giving greater powers to the ITU, an effort designed to give national governments much more of a say over cyberspace than they have now. The proposal was a non-starter, and it was withdrawn before WCIT even got started. And it's also true that China has quietly lobbied for some very dubious practices that it has tried to smuggle into global technical standards. But that initiative doesn't seem to have gotten very far, either.

Yes, these moves are ominous. There's no question that the same governments that aim to maintain tight control over the Internet within their own borders would like to see the same philosophy on the international level. "It took a while for governments to figure out how potentially destabilizing Internet access is," says Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School. "Now that they think they've understood it, they're considering acting in a way to protect themselves." And some of them clearly see the United Nations as the place to pursue this aim.

It's not only the police states that want to meddle with global Internet governance. Some democracies -- India, Brazil, and other places of the developing world -- do, too. Their motives often have less to do with politics than money. Some of them want to erect protectionist barriers that would compel the big Western Internet companies like Facebook and Google to pay for access to their national markets. (The countries in question want to use the resulting fees to build their own internet infrastructure.)

What all these efforts have in common is that they aim to undermine America's control of the institutions that currently define how the Internet works -- or at least that's how many other countries see it. The Internet was invented in the United States, of course, and Americans still play an outsized role in shaping its operations. The domain name system of the Internet is controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private, non-profit corporation that is subject to U.S. Commerce Department oversight.

This has made ICANN the focus of considerable ire in foreign capitals. Russia, China, and Brazil have talked about shifting control over domain names to the U.N. or to individual national governments. Earlier this year, a commentator at the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, railed against U.S. dominance: "The United States controls and owns all cyberspaces in the world, and other countries can only lease Internet addresses and domain names from the United States, leading to the U.S. hegemonic monopoly over the world's Internet."

There are undoubtedly many people in Washington who wish that this were true. But it's doubtful that anyone exercises anything like a "hegemonic monopoly" over the global Internet today, which, despite its origins in the U.S. Department of Defense, has evolved over the years into a vast, decentralized entity -- less an organization than an organism -- that depends on voluntary standards. Today most of the web's operations are defined by an ever-shifting cloud of companies, industry groups, and users. "‘Internet governance' is probably the wrong term to use," says Kevin Werbach, a professor at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. "There isn't a need for a body to govern the Internet."

Its defenders call the reigning order "the multi-stakeholder model." It certainly has its problems. But it has the virtue of transparency -- unlike the ITU (although, to its credit, the WCIT has responded to its critics by allowing a live webcast of the proceedings). It's also a model that has been largely vindicated by experience; after all, it's worked pretty well so far.

It's striking, in fact, that the Europeans, who don't necessarily side with Washington on many issues nowadays and who tend to be quite fond of multilateral forums, have supported the United States in its efforts to maintain the Internet status quo.

None of this, of course, means that there aren't threats to Internet freedom out there today -- and yes, even in America itself. Syracuse's Mueller notes that no other government in the world has surveillance resources to compare with Washington's. Powerful U.S. content providers are constantly lobbying to shape the web according to their interests. SOPA and PIPA have been defeated for the moment, but no one should doubt that their sponsors in the business world will seize the next possible opening to punish online copyright infringement in the most draconian of ways.

We all have an interest in keeping the system of Internet administration as open as possible -- and, if anything, making it even more decentralized. Reforming ICANN, which has attracted its own share of controversy lately, might be a start. But handing over greater control of the Internet to governments would definitely be a move in the wrong direction.

Speaking of which, it would be interesting to hear what Russian and Chinese Internet users, as opposed to their governments, have to say on these matters. Funnily enough, no one in Moscow or Beijing seems to be asking them. Even in democratic India, for that matter, technologists and activists have scolded officials for shutting them out of deliberations before the Dubai conference -- and rightly so. "The Internet is not a government-run telephone network," says Werbach. "Why is that only governments that should make these decisions?" It's a good question. And the answer is that they shouldn't.

Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

Heroes of Retreat, Revisited

We love to celebrate heroic crusaders for human rights. But what about the dictator who decides to surrender his powers?

What makes a hero? I've found myself thinking about that a lot lately. Humans seem to have a great hunger for heroes; demand always exceeds the supply. Which is logical enough, when you consider that heroes, by their very definition, are supposed to be exceptional. What's that great line from The Incredibles again? "When everyone's super, no one will be."

Every age complains about its lack of heroes, but once you start looking, it turns out that they are indeed around. Right now, netizens are enthusing over a chance photo that shows a New York City cop making a present of new boots to a homeless man. That the photo went viral almost instantly attests to our need to latch on to people who seem to embody the highest values. (Or just take a look at CNN's popular Heroes program, a celebration of ordinary people who do good deeds.)

Heroes come in different forms. Just take a look at Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of that country's pro-democracy movement, would clearly qualify as a hero in just about anyone's book. She sacrificed a happy life with her own family to the cause of attaining freedom for her people. She has stared down armed soldiers and endured lonely decades of detention. Now, after so many years of struggle, she seems to have been vindicated. The same military government that she opposed for so many years has suddenly changed heart, opening up the once-isolated country to the outside world and awakening hope among its own citizens.

Yet consider the other Burmese politician that FP named to its 2012 list of 100 Global Thinkers, a group whose achievements we're celebrating this week. Burmese President Thein Sein is not really the kind of person you'd choose as a natural hero. For almost his entire adult life he embodied the very system that Aung San Suu Kyi fought. He spent four decades in the Burmese military, which has run the country since 1962, mostly with unstinting brutality. Thein Sein played a big role in the regime. From 2007 to 2011, he served as prime minister; it was only in 2010, soon before he become president, that he hung up his uniform. It was soon after that he launched the reforms that have led to the release of hundreds of political prisoners and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to get herself elected to a seat in parliament.

Thein Sein is not a colorful or charismatic personality. He may be the same age as Aung San Suu Kyi, but he comes off -- perhaps by virtue of his long years of service in a tyrannical regime -- as far older and grayer than she. He reads his speeches in a monotone. Given his past, it's doubtful that he will ever have any sort of real rapport with his people. And it would be hard to blame them for it, given the horrors that the Burmese military has visited upon the country's citizenry over the years. (He hasn't been directly implicated in any abuses himself, but he was such a part of the regime that he was also targeted by United States sanctions intended to discipline the Burmese regime. His name was taken off the sanctions list only on September 20 of this year.)

In other words, no one should expect Hollywood to come up with a stirring biopic based on the life of the Burmese president. We like our heroes to have triumphantly linear biographies, tales of ascent against the odds -- and that means that the scriptwriters are out of luck when it comes to someone like Thein Sein. This is a man who achieved all the power that an authoritarian system has to offer -- and then embarked on a course designed to undermine that very power. His friends will accordingly despise him as a traitor, while his foes dismiss him as an opportunist.

I can't claim all the credit for that last thought. It's actually a paraphrase of an insight expressed in a magnificent and largely forgotten essay by the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger. As far as I can tell, though it has been occasionally referenced in English, the essay -- entitled "The Heroes of Retreat" ("Die Helden des Rueckzugs" in the original) -- has never been properly translated into English, which is a terrible shame. Enzensberger published the article in one of Germany's leading newspapers, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in December 1989. (You'll have a hard time finding it on the paper's website; if you want a copy, you're better off ordering a collection of Enzensberger's essays, like this one.)

Enzensbeger wrote his piece at a moment when the Soviet communist edifice in East Central Europe was falling apart. The man who did more than anyone else to facilitate that development was, of course, Mikhail Gorbachev, the then-Soviet leader, who made it publicly clear that Red Army troops were no longer in the business of keeping communist governments in the region in power, thus essentially inviting Poles, Czechs, East Germans, and all the rest to rise up in (mostly peaceful) revolt. This, Enzensberger argues, required a kind of political self-effacement and tactical modesty that is far more praiseworthy than the bloody military triumphs that once inspired traditional labels of "heroism." The compromises that enable nonviolent solutions to tyranny may not always qualify as the stuff of bedtime stories, but, the author insists, they are no less worthy of our accolades.

Enzensberger's other "heroes of retreat" include General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish communist who outlawed the Solidarity trade union and declared martial law in 1981, but opened the way toward an end of the communist party's monopoly on power later in the decade, as well as János Kádár, the reformist party leader in Hungary after the 1956 revolution against Soviet rule. Another is Adolfo Suárez, the first democratically elected prime minister of Spain after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. In 1977, Suárez, who had once headed the fascist Falange Movement (one of the pillars of the authoritarian system created by Franco), presided over the first free elections in 41 years, the grandest act in the gradual dismantlement of Spain's transition to democracy.

"It was Clausewitz, that classic strategic thinker, who showed that retreat is the most difficult of all military operations," writes Enzensberger. "This is also true of politics." Suárez, Enzensberger writes, "was a participant and a beneficiary of the Franco regime; had he not belonged to its innermost circle of power, he would have not been in the position to do away with the dictatorship." It's for such reasons that the masters of political retreat rarely get their due: the role they play is one of pronounced ambivalence: "He who abandons his own positions is not only surrendering ground, but also a part of himself." But it's precisely this capacity to surrender power, rather than amassing it, that belongs to the peculiar mission of these crucial political figures.

Needless to say, when a dictatorship resolves to do away with itself, the process that results can be long, tedious, and not entirely satisfying. There are bound to be messy compromises involved, both practical and moral -- just ask the Brazilians, the Chileans, or the South Africans. And success certainly isn't a given: Vladimir Putin hasn't found it too hard to roll back Gorbachev's experiment in liberalization.

Present-day Burma's forward progress is hardly guaranteed, either. There are still many questions about the extent to which those who held power under the old regime are willing to surrender the political and economic privileges they continue to enjoy. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't give Thein Sein his due. He's a bad guy who's now trying to do something right. We should give credit to people who are capable of change. That's something that takes courage and daring. We are right to celebrate the good that he's done.

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images