Post-NSA, Europe Wants the US to Have Less Control of the Internet

The European Commission has a few ideas on the future of internet governance, with a focus on globalisation.

Feb 12 2014, 4:35pm
Image: Lisbon Council/Flickr

The European Commission just threw down the gauntlet on internet governance in a counter-NSA response that runs far deeper than signing a few online petitions or sticking banner ads on websites for a day

Europe wants a bigger say in how the internet is run—and less of a US influence. The EC’s proposals, announced today, make no secret of their motivation. “Recent revelations of large-scale surveillance have called into question the stewardship of the US when it comes to Internet Governance,” the commission said. 

“So given the US-centric model of Internet Governance currently in place, it is necessary to broker a smooth transition to a more global model while at the same time protecting the underlying values of open multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet," it continued.

What “internet governance” means here is the technical management of the internet. For example, ICANN, the body responsible for overseeing domain names (among other tasks), is a US organisation. And while it’s technically a non-profit, it’s under contract from the US Department of Commerce. The EC proposals specifically name ICANN as an aspect they’d like to see “globalised,” so that one organisation in one country—a country in which trust has diminished on digital matters since the Snowden leaks came out—doesn’t hold all the cards.

Other actions proposed include launching a Global Internet Policy Observatory to keep up transparency in internet policies and a review of where local laws might conflict on internet issues. The keywords are keeping the internet open, transparent, and inclusive.

Arguing over who gets to be in charge might seem counterproductive to an effort emphasising the global nature of the internet, but Europe isn’t suggesting it should take over from the US as web ringleader. Rather, it wants to lead the debate—and make sure it’s not overlooked.

“The next two years will be critical in redrawing the global map of Internet governance,” said Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission. “Europe must contribute to a credible way forward for global internet governance. Europe must play a strong role in defining what the net of the future looks like.”

Digital Agenda spokesperson Ryan Heath puts forward Europe's argument to be the "honest broker" in negotiations on internet governance. Video: European Commission

Ryan Heath of the EU’s digital agenda expanded on that in a video message. “Essentially what we are saying is that we would like Europe to be the honest broker in these global negotiations,” he said. “We want to steer a very clear middle path, a sustainable path, between those who think the internet works fine now—which it doesn’t—and those who would like to see the internet come under government control.” You can perhaps translate that as the US with its current dominance on internet governance versus countries like China, where the internet is censored.

“We are firmly saying that the internet should not come under government control but governments have a role to play in the process and we need to make sure everyone around the globe has a say in how it’s run,” he continued.

While the Commission was clear it didn’t want to establish any sort of single body to act as guardian of the web, it also emphasised that it didn’t want to see it broken up into different regional or national networks; after all, that would undermine the whole point of a global internet.

But for advocates of internet openness, the proposals doubtless don’t go far enough. After all, they’re still preoccupied with governments’ role in “running” the internet.

As for Europe, it’s certainly not beyond reproach when it comes to mass surveillance, and several European countries—particularly the UK—have been implicated in the NSA’s work or similar spying projects. But these proposals at least show a proactive response to the revelations and a desire to improve the internet in the future. Last year, Kroes said the allegations of spying were “shocking” and “unacceptable,” but also stressed the need for concrete efforts to combat that behaviour.

“Let’s not be naive,” she said in a video in November. “New laws won’t stop spying happening; nor will simple outrage; nor will sitting there like a rabbit in the headlights.” On internet governance at least, it looks like Europe’s aiming to get out of the headlights, and into the limelight.