Let’s create a better Internet together
19 Feb 2014|

Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, has a plan for internet governance that won’t please the US.

Perhaps a bit dazed from the raucous success that was Safer Internet Day 2014, the European Commission may have taken the motto ‘let’s create a better Internet together’ a bit too far. Last Wednesday, the Commission released a proposal for the adoption of ‘concrete and actionable steps’ to globalise governance of the Internet’s architecture. On the surface, this proposal is sound, and frankly nothing new, the Commission having highlighted internationalisation in its Digital Agenda launched back in 2010. But the European Union is using this tactic as part of its broader effort to position itself as an honest broker in critical negotiations to shape the future of Internet governance, and this tactic will do nothing more than undermine its own interests in the discussion.

The proposal calls for clear timelines for the globalisation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), strengthening of the Internet Governance Forum, increased transparency, accountability, inclusiveness, the safeguarding of open, unfragmented Internet, among other issues. These are noble and necessary changes to the governance of the Internet. However, in putting the cart before the horse, these proposals will further efforts to push Internet government over governance.

In a gross generalisation, the two primary camps in Internet governance negotiations revolve around a US-led camp supporting a multi-stakeholder governance model and the Sino-Russian camp looking to transpose state sovereignty more directly in cyberspace. Roughly speaking, EU member states support multi-stakeholder governance, a position clearly emphasised by Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes: ‘governments have a crucial role to play, but top-down approaches are not the right answer’. Regardless of how appropriate these proposals are, they undermine long-term strategy. Quite literally calling ‘US stewardship’ into question, the European Commission is kicking the strongest proponent of the multi-stakeholder model while it’s down; a clear case of friendly fire.

No matter what you think of Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks, the fact remains that nothing has done more to undermine the US championing of multi-stakeholder Internet governance. Many European politicians eagerly piled on, feigning shock and pandering to constituents with proposals that hinted dangerously at Internet Balkanisation. Although this initial fervour has died down, this recent proposal only undercuts its long-term shared interests, doing little to improve Europe’s legitimacy on the issue.

Trying to score brownie points by ragging on your big brother is a long heralded playground tactic, however when it comes to Internet governance the stakes are far too high. Rather than undermining a US position that is largely harmonious to Europe’s goals, the EU should be leveraging the power of ideas and its heralded normative power to influence the global conversation. Instead the EU is shirking responsibility and justifying US preference towards bilateral engagement with Europe.

With leading cyber states including Estonia, the UK and the Netherlands, there’s no shortage of talent in EU cyber governance. The EU has the potential to be an honest broker and thought leader as we shape the future of internet governance, and its proposals for internationalisation aren’t only fair game in the discussion but should be implemented in the future. However, these proposals need to be integrated into a larger strategy.

With the International Code of Conduct for Information Security, the champions of state sovereignty in cyberspace hammered their stake into the ground long ago. With US legitimacy hobbled by endless leaks, it’s time for someone to take ownership of the multi-stakeholder governance model. If it can overcome the recent spate of leadership malaise, the European Union holds real potential to set clear goals and push the value of multi-stakeholder governance. Instead it’s falling into old habits and floundering between the two camps in an attempt to gain ‘legitimacy’. With a change of tack unlikely, perhaps there’s a ‘punch above its weight’ Indo-Pacific middle power that can take the torch? But that’s a question for another rant.

Klée Aiken is an analyst in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg.