After watching the collection of talks on Cyber-Influence and Power, read a thoughtful recap of the major points in this TED Study, and learn where experts believe things are headed.
Trends and questions in politics, cyber-influence and power
As the year 2012 drew to a close, the Syrian government shut down the Internet in order to control information exchanges among rebels seeking to overthrow the dictatorship of Bashir al-Assad as well as to limit the amount of information the international community could access about events within the country.
Former White House adviser on technology policy Andrew McLaughlin observed, "The pattern seems to be that governments that fear mass movements on the street have realized that they might want to be able to shut off all Internet communications in the country, and have started building the infrastructure that enables them to do that."(i) In states where the government controls information and communication technology (ICT) providers, this kind of repressive action is easier. Still, as Rebecca MacKinnon noted in her TEDTalk, even when countries do not own the ICT providers, they can still exert enormous influence and regulatory power over them.
Moreover, Syria's government is not the first to disrupt communications in an effort to advance their own political agenda; other countries including Iran, Egypt, Nepal and Burma have also used this tactic. And Syria is unlikely to be the last: the networking firm Renesys performed an analysis of countries that are most vulnerable to an Internet shutdown and found that 61 countries are "at severe risk of Internet disconnection" because they only have one or two companies that control external (international) connections.(ii)
While the Syrian government's recent actions illustrate how authoritarian regimes attempt to manipulate information flows and thwart revolutionary efforts by essentially shutting down Internet access, Syrian citizens' responses also reveal how any attempt to shut down ICTs leads to counter-efforts to undermine and overcome the government's actions. The New York Times reports, for example, that while Twitter facilitated the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Skype has been one of the primary tools used in the Syrian rebellion. Rebels have also overcome the Internet shutdown by arming "themselves with mobile satellite phones and dial-up modems" that allow them to communicate not only with each other but also with the world, providing information about government atrocities, battles and casualties that the government is attempting to suppress.(iii) According to technology websites like The Next Web (TNW), Twitter is also helping the rebels thwart the government's efforts, as users from all over the globe have posted dial-up numbers in order to help people in Syria connect to the Web.(iv)
Meanwhile, the international community gathered in Dubai at the beginning of December 2012 for the UN's International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) with the goal of reviewing the current set of regulations governing international interconnection and interoperability. These International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) were originally written in 1988 and serve as the binding global treaty on information and communication services.
Although the stated goals of the conference were to promote the free flow of technology and information, to promote technological innovation, and to make access to ICTs more equitable, critics of the WCIT meeting argued that governments were planning instead to work on ways to increase state control over the Internet, much like states typically controlled the telephone industry and infrastructure. The Internet Society, an international non-profit devoted to keeping the Internet open, asserted that several nations have proposals before the WCIT conference that are "calling for the right to be able to shut down their Internet infrastructure in the case of threats to national security."(v) Critics also pointed out that because only member states were allowed to submit proposals, the fate of ICTs was placed in the hands of the very powers seeking to manage and control them - states - rather than in those of civil society groups who advocate for free and open access to information.
Vint Cerf, often referred to as one of the fathers of the Internet, argued in a CNN op-ed that ITU "is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet. Only governments have a vote at the ITU. This includes governments that do not support a free and open Internet. Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the Web have no vote."(vi) Other critics expressed concern about WCIT's lack of transparency, since so many of the proposals and documents were hidden behind password-protected firewalls. In response, policy analysts Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado from George Mason University took a page from Julian Assange's playbook and launched WCITLeaks.org, a site that calls on people with access to hidden WCIT documents to anonymously share the information with the world.(vii)
While geopolitical observers were following events in Dubai and Syria, an example of a democratic state's attempt to control ICT use in civil society was being played out in India. Two young women were arrested because of their Facebook posts questioning why so many stores in Mumbai had closed in the wake of the death of Bal Thackeray, a controversial Indian political figure.
The offending comments were posted by Shaheen Dhada, who wrote, "Every day thousands of people die. But still the world moves on...Just due to one politician dead. A natural death. Everyone goes crazy...Respect is earned not given out, definitely not forced. Today Mumbai shuts down due to fear not due to respect."(viii) Dhada's friend, Renu Srinivasan, clicked "like" and added a comment echoing Dhada's sentiments. Soon after posting, the two women and their families were taken into police custody for violating section 66(A) of the Indian IT law stating "that anyone using a computer to share information which is ‘grossly offensive' or ‘menacing in character' could face up to three years in jail and a fine."(ix)
While Dhada and Srinivasan were ultimately released without charges, the case exemplifies issues raised by TED speakers Morozov and MacKinnon regarding government surveillance of citizens via social networking sites and government use of ICTs to suppress free speech. Because India is the world's largest democracy, the case also offers an important reminder that these issues are not limited to countries with authoritarian regimes. As such, citizens of democratic countries must also work vigilantly to protect their freedoms and to build what MacKinnon calls "the kind of world in which government and technology serve the world's people and not the other way around."
The TEDTalks in Cyber-Influence and Power and the examples discussed above all highlight the efforts of states, citizens, and non-state actors to negotiate power in a technology-rich global landscape. States exert their power internationally in a variety of ways, including through international organizations like the UN and through conferences like the WCIT. However, states' roles are shifting, as are the ways they're able to wield power. Once nation states dominated the international scene and people identified themselves primarily as citizens of a specific country, but today ICTs have facilitated broader identifications, allegiances, responsibilities, and opportunities for action.
ICTs have, in short, helped foster a growing commitment to the notion of global citizenship, in which people begin to see connections between the local and the global, understand that they are responsible to others beyond their own borders, and view themselves as agents of change. Globalization, and the systemic risks inherent in its myriad webs of complex connections, demands that we see beyond parochial nation state interests, and ICTs provide tools through which citizens can engage with our most pressing global issues. One of the key remaining questions is to what extent the existing "fossilized" international governing structures discussed by Goldin and Brown will hinder efforts for global coordination and cooperation.
The TEDTalks presented here offer contrasting views on the role of ICTs in this shifting international landscape. Whether one sympathizes with TED speakers who see ICTs as a liberating force, with those who see ICTs as providing innovative ways for states to exert their authoritarian powers, or with others who see ICTs simply as tools without any intrinsically positive or negative impact on individual freedoms, it is clear that ICTs will increasingly play a central role not only in local and global struggles for power and influence but also in efforts to build "a truly global society" (Brown) and to "manage the planet collectively through collective wisdom" (Goldin).
i. "Shutdowns Raise Issue of Who Controls the Internet," NPR, December 1, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/12/01/166286596/shutdowns-raise-issue-of-who-controls-the-internet.
ii. Cowie, James, "Could It Happen In Your Country?" Renesys, November 30, 2012. http://www.renesys.com/blog/2012/11/could-it-happen-in-your-countr.shtml.
iii. Chozick, Amy, "For Syria's Rebel Movement, Skype Is a Useful and Increasingly Dangerous Tool," The New York Times, November 30, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/world/middleeast/syrian-rebels-turn-to-skype-for-communications.html?_r=0.
iv. Heim, Anna, "Syria Goes Dark after All International Internet Connectivity is Cut in the Country," The Next Web, November 29, 2012. http://thenextweb.com/me/2012/11/29/syria-goes-dark-after-all-international-internet-connectivity-is-cut-in-the-country/.
v. "Shutdowns Raise Issue of Who Controls the Internet," NPR, December 1, 2012. http://nwpr.org/post/shutdowns-raise-issue-who-controls-internet.
vi. Cerf, Vinton, "'Father of the Internet': Why We Must Fight for Its Freedom," CNN, November 30, 2012. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/29/business/opinion-cerf-google-internet-freedom/index.html.
vii. Brito, Jerry, "Today We're Launching WCITLeaks.org," June 6, 2012. http://techliberation.com/2012/06/06/today-were-launching-wcitleaks-org/.
viii. "India Facebook Arrests: Shaheen and Renu Speak Out," BBC, November 25, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20490823.
ix. "India's Facebook Arrests Spark Tighter Online Rules., BBC, December 3, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20576416.