The Internet came very close to being kidnapped last week. Russia and China used the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to push for government control of the Internet and restrictions on access to information. WCIT was supposed to update an obscure U.N. treaty on international telecommunications, but instead a longstanding fight over control of the Internet to reduce the risks it poses to authoritarian regimes came to a head. This was not entirely a surprise. In 2011, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia's WCIT goal was "establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union" (the U.N. body responsible for telecommunications and the WCIT).
The WCIT saw national sovereignty return with a vengeance. Blocs of states competed for power. This is not a bipolar contest, with the West on the side of righteousness. Our righteousness has been dented and there are many more players. Governments as diverse as Malaysia, Vietnam, and India want their values and their national laws to have precedence in cyberspace. If the overworked term "globalization" means a borderless world, where American culture and values dominate, and if the Internet is the primary vehicle for delivering this, other nations want greater control of the car. The Russians cleverly used discontent with the status quo to win support for repressive ideas, including international endorsement for blocking access to troubling websites.
Authoritarian regimes fear the Internet because they fear their own people. Russia, China, and Iran see the access to information brought by the Internet as a threat to regime survival. Last year, when he was still Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev said of the Arab Spring and social networks, "Let's face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to implement it." Medvedev would not identify who he meant by "they," but the finger-pointing brings back memories of the Kremlin's jittery reaction to popular uprisings that toppled entrenched regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s. At the time, Putin and other senior officials publicly accused the West of meddling. Authoritarian regimes believe that the Internet is, as one Chinese official put it, part of "an American plot" to undermine other governments.
The United States was on the defensive, shielding the Internet's status quo. This is too easily portrayed as America's desire to keep its political and economic control of the Internet. Americans may be surprised to learn that they control the Internet, a conglomeration of millions of individual networks, but the belief that the United States has a grand strategy to preserve "hegemony" has a deep hold on thinking in many nations. Hegemony, in this case, means using American technology and the services of giant American companies to access a global resource managed by an American corporation under contract to the Commerce Department. Russia and China argued persuasively that this global resource should be managed by all nations, under the auspices of the United Nations. Eighty-seven nations, led by blocs from the Middle East and Africa, supported Russia and China, while only 54 agreed with the United States.
There were many reasons for the broad support of the Russian and Chinese proposal. The United States has less influence after its misadventures in the Middle East, a tarnished human rights record, and is the victim of a widespread belief that it was responsible for global recession. The apparent decline of Europe reinforces the unwillingness of other nations to accept without question Western leadership (and values). Many countries were swayed by development considerations (meaning more high-speed telecommunications services for poor countries), for which the authoritarian proposals seemed to offer greater support.