What’s Wrong with Intergovernmentalism?

by on April 9, 2013 · 3 comments

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.

— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

As we approach the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum, the debate over whether intergovernmental organizations like the International Telecommunication Union should have a role to play in Internet governance continues. One argument in favor of intergovernmentalism, advanced, for instance, by former ITU Counsellor Richard Hill (now operating his own ITU lobbying organization, delightfully named APIG), goes as follows:

  • Everybody already agrees that governments are sovereign within their own territories.
  • Other than a few “separatists,” everyone agrees that national laws apply to use of the Internet within national borders.
  • It may be advantageous to “harmonize” national laws concerning the Internet.
  • Harmonization of national laws happens through intergovernmental organizations, such as the ITU.
  • Therefore, intergovernmental organizations such as the ITU should have a role in Internet governance.

My purpose in this post is to unpack the third premise. Who exactly benefits (and who is harmed) when national governments harmonize their national laws concerning the Internet?

One way to begin to answer this question is to see which governments think they would benefit from a greater intergovernmental role. One rough metric might be International Telecommunication Regulations (Dubai, 2012) signatories. In the map below, signatories are shown in black.

If it’s not clear from the map, there is a strong correlation between authoritarianism and support for the ITRs. Ninety-one percent of those countries ranked as Full Democracies in the Democracy Index opposed the ITRs, while 91 percent of those countries listed as “Authoritarian” supported them.

What national laws do these authoritarian regimes believe need harmonization? I am not privy to any government’s internal deliberations, but as The Economist reports, many of these countries are engaged in “monitoring, filtering, censoring and criminalising free speech online.” It seems to me that the most reasonable hypothesis is that countries like Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, China, United Arab Emirates, Russian Federation, Iraq, and Sudan would benefit from a “national Internet segment” because it would normalize the idea of such monitoring and censorship.

In other words, authoritarian regimes favor intergovernmental “harmonization” of national Internet laws because it would enable them to get away with more authoritarianism. China already basically operates a “national Internet segment;” traffic into and out of China is filtered by the government. It is going to be a problem for the Chinese government when its subjects become wealthier, more empowered, and ultimately able to point to Internet policy outside of China and politely ask why part of the Chinese Internet is missing. If other countries were to adopt national Internet segments, the Chinese government would be able to avoid this uncomfortable conversation.

The “cooperation” that is likely to result from intergovernmental Internet policymaking is not the solving of communications problems, which is already accomplished quite ably through international technical organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, but a kind of collusion. If we all agree to respect each other’s right to control information within our respective borders, say the authoritarian regimes, we can tame the more revolutionary aspects of the Internet and solidify our grip on power.

In practice, therefore, intergovernmentalism seems to enable national policies that are not only deplorable from a broadly liberal perspective, but illegal under international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 reads:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Intergovernmentalism should be opposed, therefore, not merely by “separatists,” those who believe national governments have no business applying national law to the Internet. It should be opposed by anyone who does not wish to advance the agenda of censorship.


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