A recent survey suggests that most users think of the Internet as a force for good. But we need to pay attention to the various forces, both governmental and private, that are reshaping the Internet via global platforms, writes Mahima Kaul

A week before government officials from around the world left for Dubai, to attend the World Conference on Information Technology (WCIT), the Internet Society released a global Internet user survey which revealed attitudes of over 10,000 users in 20 countries. It seems that users really do expect the Internet to change the world. Eighty-nine percent agreed or strongly agreed that Internet access allows freedom of expression on all subjects. Only thirty percent felt that strong censorship currently exists online. Sixty percent feel there has been increased civil action and political awareness in their country because of the Internet. There was evidence of naiveté as well; despite being aware of cyber threats, most users (eighty percent) admitted they do not read privacy policies before sharing data, and half the respondents do not log out after using online services. Two-thirds of the respondents expect the Internet will play a strong role in solving global problems like eliminating poverty and improving maternal health, as well as improving business, science, and technology. Finally, more than eighty percent respondents felt the Internet plays a positive role in their lives and society as well. You could say it is a safe bubble to be in.

This is not the attitude of a small but growing pool of Internet experts who have been dedicatedly studying the growth of the Internet, shaped by governments, business and civil society. They exercise caution, and think it wise not to buy into (as the title of Foreign Policy contributing editor Evgeny Morozov’s book suggests) The Net Delusion. It starts at home. Users go to Internet companies such as social media platforms and put in personal information because it feels safe. As we become politically active, and take to economic activity online, we must consider how safe our information really is. Can it ever be used against us? Will the internet companies we swear loyalty to — log into everyday — protect us? For example, in India, social media users have been in legal trouble over some comments they have made. All of those arrested under Section 66A of the IT Act had used their real names. Now imagine if they had used fake profiles. If the government of India had asked for the users real name or IP address, would the Internet company have relented? Is there a guarantee these companies would protect users, especially in an authoritarian environment? Rebecca McKinnon, who runs the website www​.glob​alvoic​eson​line​.com, which (among other things) tracks instances of censorship across the world, has another idea. In her book, Consent of the Networked, she argues that Internet companies should agree to never take actions that violate the human rights of their users, especially if governments apply pressure to reveal politically sensitive information. The recent publication by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, talks about the world being at a pivotable decision point and explores whether the Internet will free us or enslave us. The underlying contradiction of the Internet for him is that it can be used for empowerment and democratic participation on one hand, and surveillance and control on the other.

> The end result, so far, has been the Indian government backed an UN-led system only to have distanced itself from the idea, most likely after severe public and media-led backlash at their perceived attempt to control” the internet.

There has been recent media attention to hotly contested questions of Internet governance. Some countries, like Russia, have pushed the idea that a United Nations led agency should govern the Internet, instead of private and non-profit groups such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the company licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce to coordinate technical aspects of the Internet, like assigning Internet Protocol addresses. This could mean the difference between the free and open Internet as we know it today, and an Internet where some proposals could allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries” according to Vint Cerf, Google executive and co- founding architect of the Internet. Furious debates have been going on within select circles in most countries, with divisions even within civil society groups as to which course to take. For example, in India itself, there were varying voices guiding the Indian government on this issue. While the Center for Internet and Society, Bangalore and the Internet Democracy Project, New Delhi were adamant that the government not back a UN-led model of Internet governance, other organizations like the Bangalore-based IT for Change were instrumental in crafting this position. The end result, so far, has been the Indian government backed an UN-led system only to have distanced itself from the idea, most likely after severe public and media-led backlash at their perceived attempt to control” the internet.

Different stakeholders such as citizens, activists, governments and businesses have very different views of the Internet, contingent on their guiding philosophy and end-goal. While there is no doubt the Internet can be a force multiplier for good in the world, the reality of competing interests trying to shape the future of the Internet to reflect their world order is here. Deep suspicions about the real intent of this meeting had preceeded the WCIT in Dubai because of this, and it is the same reason that in his inaugural address to the United Nations (UN) secretary-general Ban Ki-moon emphasised that the objective of the conference was to ensure universal access to the benefits of information and communication technology – including for the two-thirds of the world’s population currently not online.”

By the time this digital divide is bridged, the Internet could be very different from what it is today. At Dubai’s WCIT, held in December 2012, attended by representatives of over 193 governments, the business end of the Internet was a top priority. Going in, one of the questions to be discussed was the important, albeit complex, issue about the development of commerce on the Internet. For example, some of Europe’s big telecom firms did not want to adopt network neutrality” as the US has done. Network neutrality holds that Internet service providers should treat all data sources equally, and should not give preferential treatment to those who are ready to pay for faster transmission for their content. Those who argue for the principle believe that bigger and richer companies will be able to strike up deals to make their content much more accessible, to the detriment of smaller companies. Imagine if Google was very fast on your mobile browser, but all Indian search engines took forever to load. It would not allow for any start-ups to challenge the status quo. This debate comes back, once again, to the question of what kind of Internet we want, and the principles that should guide it. Today, most users don’t think about these questions, and the vast majority might imagine they have a slow connection when certain apps/​websites are inaccessible. However, this could be the shape of things to come. The WCIT did not end with a consensus, with the U.S. and other delegations including many European countries and India refusing the sign the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). One of the reasons the US gave for this was that Internet governance had been explicitly added into the treaty, which the US does not want. However, other reasons for disagreements included ITU’s claim over a mandate over cybersecurity. Those for this, including some African countries, suggested the ITU can harmonise” data retention laws and rules. However those against are worried that the ITU would be able to supercede national laws, and that in the future, these proposals on cybersecurity could help repressive regimes crack down on dissidents.

Ironically then, the Internet Society’s survey reveals that a majority of users seem to trust that the Internet is intrinsically good. What it also reveals is the same majority might not be paying close attention to the forces reshaping the Internet via global platforms. They should. If for nothing else, someone needs to remind all the experts, businessmen and government officials that there is a bubble they are about to burst.

Originally published in Sunday Guardian.