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The Failure of US Internet Governance

In April of 2011, I hosted a Data Governance Council Meeting at the George C. Marshall Center, in the US Embassy, in Paris.  One of the speakers was Guillermo Christensen, the Technology Policy Advisor to the US Ambassador to the OECD, who spoke about the Obama Administration’s policy of Internet Freedom and Net Neutrality.

He was there because six months prior I spoke on a panel at the US Chamber of Commerce in Paris that was chaired by his boss, Karen Kornblu, then US Ambassador to the OECD.  Guillermo and I agreed that the freedom and openness of the internet was under threat from 40 odd nations that blocked, filtered, or monitored internet communications to control what their populations learned and communicated.

Later, at the IBM event in Paris, I gave a keynote presentation (Data Governance Keynote Paris 2011) describing the kinds of disinformation and threats to Internet Freedom around the world and quoted then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “A new information curtain is descending across much of the world,” she said, calling growing Internet curbs the modern equivalent of the Berlin Wall.I went on to describe the history of disinformation and how dictators like Stalin removed historical facts and filtered information to keep the population under control.  Governments that can control what people learn assume the most dictatorial powers and are the most serious threats to democracy and freedom.  I declared then, and wrote in blog post later,  that the right to learn and read information without restriction on the internet should be a fundamental and universal human right.

We were all gratified to read a UN memo two months later which affirmed this idea and recommended it be included in the UN Charter.

None of us that day, or any day since, could ever have imagined that two years later it would be the verdict of the European Union, and The Committee to Protect Journalists that it is the United States of America which is the greatest threat to the Internet and the Freedom of Information.

This is a failure of US leadership and governance of gargantuan proportions.  It undermines decades of Human Rights work by US presidents and ambassadors the world over.  It tarnishes our image and reputation abroad and it undermines the trust of the entire world in American leaders, policy, institutions, companies, and products and services.  And it angers and frustrates me to no end that our leaders were so shortsighted to allow NSA to accumulate so much power without oversight and accountability.  They put themselves above the law and above the constitution and above the interests of the 320 million Americans they were elected to serve, not to mention the 2 billion netizens worldwide who use the internet to learn and share and communicate and grow.

In the late 1990′s neo-conservatives in America fretted over the potential decline in American power abroad after the end of the cold war and the declines in defence spending.  They persuaded a Republican Administration to invest in new military spending, launch two costly wars, and build the most sophisticated global spying operation in world history.  They never understood that American power abroad is also a reflection of our values, integrity, and honesty in policy, practice, and people.  Without trust, you have no reputation, and without a reputation, your power wanes.

We’ve been caught lying, spying, and cheating and now the whole world distrusts us and the result will be changes in Interent Governance and a decline in American power and prestige.  This is the ironic turning point in American history the neo-cons sought to avoid.  I dread the Greek Tragedy putting these crimes to verse.


  1. Thanks Steve – as an outside observer on US politics, I think you’ve hit this one out of the park. I would suggest that the level of trust in US government is at an all-time low, whether you’re talking about US citizens themselves or the perceptions of the international community.

    I don’t think this is a US-only problem, however. Faith and trust in the workings of government “for the people, by the people” continues to erode. Whether you look at Australia (where I currently live), the UK (where I’m from), the Ukraine, Russia, Syria, Egypt – the litany of mistrust and disaffection is palpable.

    From an information management perspective, I guess the one thing we can contribute to the debate is to continue to campaign for open data – transparency, accountability and trust can be built again only if there is unfettered access to information about the decision-making and workings of government.

    There’s been plenty of rhetoric on that score, but not nearly enough real progress….

  2. Steve: Well said. I think America needs to take a long, hard look at itself and decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

    The whole concept of “American Exceptionalism” is a joke…its tribalistic jingoism that damages what I hope are still our core values (personal values, not state or national “values”).

    I agree that there has been and continues to be a huge amount of rhetoric on the issues of openness and transparency and accountability – and nowhere near enough concrete action.

    I hope my talk on Smarter Local Government and Cognitive Digital Democracy at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in April will be a clarion call to action. I certainly intend it to be one.

    As you know, I think we need to rebuild this trust at a personal, local level – the grassroots – neighborhoods, cities, counties and regions. Then our larger cultural and political institutions will come to reflect that renewal.

    Something to hope for, at least.

  3. The people that make the decisions are not the people you think you have elected to represent you. These ‘elected’ people are bought and paid for, for public consumption. Just like the analogy of the Berlin Wall, there is a curtain between the decision makers and the public. It allows the general public to think it actually had a say in the matter, which it doesn’t, and for those in power to remain anonymous as they rape, pillage and plunder to add multiple zeroes to the ends of their offshore accounts. A prime example would be Dick ’666′ Cheney.

  4. The process in the US is ultimately due to a very specific Supreme Court project to legalize political corruption. This has achieved unrestrained success in serving plutocrats, whose paranoia leads to tyranny. One wonders if the similar erosion of democracy elsewhere that Alan describes is somehow due to US/corporate influence, spreading this corruption elsewhere, or is it mere coincidence or some other common factor?

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