Networks and States

I recently finished reading Networks and States: the Global Politics of Internet Governance by Milton Mueller.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the new governance institutions that are springing up around us.  Mueller admits forthrightly in the introduction that his book takes a normative stance on many of the issues surrounding Internet governance; however, this is fine with me, as I agree with most if not all of his normative assumptions.  While admitting that many of the early cyber-libertarians who thought that the very technical underpinnings of modern networking would lead to certain political outcomes were somewhat naive, the book has a decidedly libertarian slant that holds out hope that the new institutions spawned by the Internet will at least in some ways be independent of the old regimes based on nation-states.

Mueller describes three case studies (the 2004 Indymedia takedown, the 2007 distributed denial-of-service attacks in Estonia, and the 2008 censorship of a Wikipedia entry on the Scorpion’s Virgin Killer album art by the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation) that illustrate how informal, multi-lateral networks of various state and non-state actors can take actions that have wide-ranging impact (often with unintended consequences) in a way that evades the accountability mechanisms (such as judicial review) usually built in to more traditional governance mechanisms based on the laws of a nation-state.  He then describes the attempts of the United-Nations centered institutions such as the ITU to come to grips with the problem of network governance, including the World Summit on the Information Society that has ultimately evolved into the Internet Governance Forum.  In a nod to a more quantitative form of analysis, Mueller presents some graphs of relationships among the participants drawn from interviews.  Together with the anecdotes, it is a history lesson that we should all take to heart; the most interesting part of the process is how civil society, a loosely affiliated collection of non-state interest groups, has risen to claim a place in the governance process.  Perhaps the most successful of these groups have been the Organically Developed Internet Institutions (ODii for short) based around ICANN, the RIRs, and the IETF.  Mueller laments the lack of inclusion of other civil society participants in the initial Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) of the IGF, but at the same time his history of the ICANN’s Non-Commercial Users Constituency (NCUC) and the civil society organs of the WSIS are telling of the difficult challenges in instituting representation for stakeholders that have themselves a fuzzy and changing institutional structure.  While it is easy to imagine civil society as a homogeneous group of high-minded individuals banding together to fight for human rights against the big bad UN club of dictatorial powers, it is all too easy for bad actors (such as those aligned with a repressive regime like Tunisia) to stuff the ballot box with puppet organizations and claim legitimacy on an equal footing with the likes of the EFF.

The final chapters of the book cover the main issues that are currently driving discussions on Internet governance, including the protection of intellectual property, security of infrastructure and other national interests, censorship of pornography, and the allocation of names and numbers from the global DNS and IP address registries. The final chapter of the book is an attempt to synthesize a possible future from the conflicting forces described earlier; Mueller argues that we should be prepared for a world in which both governments and networks of non-state actors play a role in handling the conflicts that arise in a future network environment.

Many of the issues raised in the final chapters are intertwined; for example, allocation of DNS names involves the collection of personally identifying information for the WHOIS database which provides the lawyers the information they need to begin serving process on those that post copyrighted material.  Similarly, this identifying information can be used to hunt down and silence pornographers and dissident human rights voices.

While Mueller examines some of the issues around the DNS blacklists that help in the fight against spam today, he does not fully appreciate the importance that whitelist reputation services will have in the future online environment.  The manner in which personally identifying information is collected, vetted, and disclosed by these reputation services will have a profound effect on all aspects of Internet governance.  Rather than compromise with the nation states, I would hope that we can build an institution that can stand up to them when necessary, protecting the identity of human rights advocates and others from the use of violence against them.  My proposal for Distributed Identity Escrow is one potential solution that provides the necessary accountability to deter spammers and other abusive users while protecting the privacy of good people.  By carefully creating a distributed network of identity repositories, disclosure of a linkage between an online pseudonym and a real-world identity would require collective action; however, the publication of a whitelist at a well-known location provides a center of hierarchical control that would lend itself to a powerful network effect and concentration of power (Mueller would seem to argue that such concentrations of power should rightfully be constrained by the state).  The technology described in my whitepaper is fairly simple and straightforward in terms of the capabilities of modern cryptography and I believe it is inevitable that someone will organize a network like this someday.  However, unlike the historical determinism espoused by the crypto-libertarians, I am under no illusion that this will be an easy task.  Powerful interests including nation states will demand their access to WHOIS-style information for all online identities.  It will require a network of dedicated human rights volunteers willing to brave the perils of imprisonment or worse to protect the identities with which they have been entrusted.

Mueller’s audacity to question the pre-eminence of the human institution known as the nation state is an admirable start.  Just how far are you willing to go to build something better?