Originally Published 2013-10-18 06:42:08 Published on Oct 18, 2013
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's recent decision to give the US a miss needs to be seen in the context of the changing narratives of internet governance and the control for cyber resources.
New governance paradigm for cyberSpace
"It's easy to interpret Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's recent decision to call off her visit to the United States of America due to the snooping of the country's electronic assets as an assertion of national security and sovereignty. Such a perspective is justifiable, but only to the extent of the narrowness of the framework that generates such a view. At a conceptual level, the architecture of international relations is based on the foundation of trust; an inherent understanding to keep off each other's toes. But concept and realpolitik are poles apart. Intelligence gathering has been the bedrock of statecraft and world leaders are hardened enough to realise it. Their countries are as much victims as they are perpetrators. It's a fact that a battle scarred veteran like Rousseff knows. Neither was Snowden's revelations confined only to Brazil. The scope of American activities, and subsequent revelations about similar French and British programmes, practically covered the entire world. In such circumstances to interpret Rousseff's decision narrowly hides the sub-texts emerging from the changing narrative of cyberspace and its global governance.

Cyberspace is equated with the Internet and there is a certain historical reason for such an intertwined imagination. Internet evolved from the American military's Advanced Research Project Agency Network (ARPANET). In the initial days it was primarily used as a communications platform. It still is today, but has evolved way beyond the linear exchange of information between computers. But its intrinsic link with communication has moulded the global governance architecture of Internet, making it fundamentally revolve around internet protocol addresses (IPv4 and IPv6), open standards (HTML, CSS, HTTP), open sources (PHP), domain name management (.com, .net, ICANN) and accessibility issues (W3C standards). The effort of the global internet governance institutions has been to ensure that technological development within cyberspace, which necessarily creates silos (think Microsoft and Linux), are able to create bridges among themselves. To the extent of keeping the lines of communication open, like super-highways between countries, the global internet governance architecture has been successful.

Internet is an articulation of the material foundations of cyberspace. The foundations include backend hardware infrastructure, private, public and institutional server farms, cloud services, search algorithms, mouldable satellite imagery, hosted enterprise software, electronic governance services and financial exchange and transaction systems. The current Internet governance architecture regulates the means and modes of articulation (Internet), while leaving its material foundations practically unregulated. Rousseff's rebuff to Barack Obama is an articulation, albeit an extreme one, of the multilateral contestation of the last few years for the control of the foundations of cyberspace. This contestation has yielded contrasting narratives, ranging from separate hardware infrastructure (Brazil), stronger encryption (Russia), focus on indigenous equipment and cloud services (India) and tight control of the flow of information (China). This grouping of countries, referred to as BRICs, have been at the forefront of this tussle for the fair governance of cyberspace. Not surprisingly, they are also the most active in all Internet governance forums. The short end of it all is this: The architecture of Internet governance needs an overhaul.

There are three fundamental issues at hand here. The first is an acknowledgment of the fact that Internet has now become a component of cyberspace. Such an acknowledgement is critical if an overhaul of the governance structure has to move the focus away from one of regulating internet to that of managing the resources of cyberspace in a fair, just and transparent manner. One possible way to have a fresh look at cyberspace is to think of it as the Antarctica of the world, where no country has explicitly or implicitly expresses any sovereign or territorial claim. Today, the bulk of cyberspace is either by design or by accident controlled by the US due to sheer geographical presence of server farms in that part of the world. Of course, the domination of corporate giants like Microsoft and Google is quite well known.

The second issue deals with bringing about a paradigm shift in conceptualising cyberspace as an arena of resources and contestation. Today, cyberspace is predominantly seen as an arena of technology and content, including user generated content, which needs to be regulated and modulated. But cyberspace is as much a socio-political construction, with its own set of internal dynamics, as it is a technological framework. A new lens to examine cyberspace could that of global commons. Think of cyberspace as the ocean and its resources as the fish, corals, minerals, oil and natural gas. There is a well-defined international system of institutions and structures that regulate and manage common global resources of the ocean. Cyberspace is a domain of common pool resources. Several issues emerging from current asymmetry of the ownership and access of cyber-resources, including several concerns related to snooping, can be addressed through this new lens.

The third and final issue deals with the shift in international relations, which is emerging as result of the contestation that's taking place in the arena of cyberspace. Brazil, Russia, China and India (BRICs) are not only one of the fastest growing groups of economies in the world, but are also Information Technology powerhouses in their own right. Together, they have the largest growing base of Internet users in the world. These countries have their own national agenda in wanting to use digital technology for social needs, like the Aadhaar project in India. While the four are pushing together on issues like the implementation of IPv6 and domain name registrations, there is also a growing realisation within the Internet governance institutions of each of these countries that they need to synchronise their efforts in 'democratising' cyber-resources. This has led to twin narratives of establishing gated cyberspaces of their own -- think India's datacentres and CSCs -- and of commonising existing cyber-resources. Rousseff's stand may well be the bugle call for the shift in the relational power dynamics of cyberspace.

(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai Chapter)

Courtesy: Governance Now

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