Internet Governance: The New “Great Game”

John Laprise, an Assistant Professor in Residence at Northwestern University in Qatar, frames internet governance in the context of a “Great Game,” discussing current “players” and their rolls and success in the game thus far.

During the 19th century at the height of the Pax Britannia, Great Britain vied with Russia to preserve its hold on India. This “Great Game” also involved, to a lesser degree, other European states such as France with their own regional interests. The players sought to involve and enlist local leaders and tribes, working to throw their opponents off balance through misinformation and misdirection while avoiding coming to blows directly (though this was not always successful, as seen in the Crimean War). In the end, Great Britain won the Great Game and preserved the Jewel in the Crown.

Fast forward to the 21st century, where we find ourselves in yet another (arguably) monopolar world with real world unrest in the Ukraine. The United States is playing a new version of the Great Game, striving to preserve a kind of internet supremacy, in the face of competition and criticism from other nation states, through subtlety and finesse in much the same way as Britain sought to maintain its hold on India. For players in geopolitics, understanding the rules of the game and the goals of the other players is crucial. Playing a game without knowing the rules or what winning looks like is frustrating and likely results in loss.  It is not apparent that the players, especially non-state actors, in the internet policy “great game” understand this.

The WSIS/IGF Game Board

At the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, the US government faced a growing number of nations that wanted a voice in the how the internet was governed. This was problematic for the US government which viewed control of the internet as a strategic asset. It was clear to everyone that the internet was an important and powerful technology. Many states, especially US rivals such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and India,[1] wanted to see internet governance shift to a UN venue where US influence would be diluted by the multistate environment. In response, the US shrewdly refused to give up control of a technology it claimed original ownership over but suggested that the status quo was not in fact static. Since the internet had such a broad and dramatic impact, the US reasonably pointed out that commercial entities, academia, and civil society should have an equal seat at the internet governance discussion table. This advanced the idea of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a forum where, unlike at the ITU launched WSIS, all parties could come together as stakeholders and participate in a multistakeholder process for charting the future of the internet. This plan was accepted and saw subtle but dramatic effects on internet governance.

Non-state actors were thrilled with their newfound status as equals to sovereign states at national and global IGF meetings. Academics, commercial organizations, and other non-state actors rejoiced at the opportunity to gain an equal place at the table with sovereign state actors. They knew that if the ITU had gained authority over the internet, their voices would be muted given the ITU’s state-based organization. Suddenly, NGOs with internet interests began coalescing around issues such as development, freedom of speech, and access.

However, for many of the US’s competitors, this was a dreadful setback. In the blink of an eye the emergence of the IGF dramatically expanded the game board for discussing internet governance, filling it with a constantly growing number of non-state actors that states were required to interact with as equals. For states that actively suppress certain NGOs within their borders, dealing with such entities as equals in an international arena was embarrassing, insulting, and puzzling. Furthermore, having suppressed such organizations domestically, these states were inexperienced in dealing with them. Sitting at the same table with non-state actors drew unwanted attention to the disparity between domestic and international relations and diminished the sovereignty of the state. The IGF process threw many US competitors and rivals off balance.

In addition, the vast majority of these new actors were more closely aligned to US internet policies than those of the US’s rivals. NGOs, academics, and commercial entities (many of which were US-based technology firms) broadly supported US policies on access, free speech, and censorship. Not only had the US expanded the playing field, it populated the field with likely allies or at the very least sympathizers. Moreover, the US was familiar with dealing with such organizations and treating them with legitimacy, if not respect.

In addition to throwing US rivals off balance with an uneven playing field filled with US sympathizing players, the IGF had other benefits for the US. By inviting everyone to the table and embracing the goal of consensus, the US displayed an apparent willingness and openness to all interested parties. It also dramatically slowed the governance change that other state players were actually seeking. As with any committee-style organization, as the number of voices increases, so does the difficulty and time required to achieve consensus. This was important to the US for two reasons. First, it maintained the status quo in which the US still retained strategic control and oversight over the internet. Secondly, the US realized that if the process could be prolonged sufficiently, technological change would outpace policy creation. As a pre-eminent source of technological innovation, the US felt that technological change stood a good chance of originating domestically whereupon the whole policy process would reset.

Early Play

In the decade since the first WSIS summit, annual IGF meetings have occurred globally. The US government has slowly moved to make internet governance more transparent and weaken its ties to ICANN. The US’s state rivals, on the other hand, have sought to change the game board, most recently at the 2013 ITU WCIT meeting though they were rebuffed by the US and US allies.

Meanwhile, internet technology and use continues to grow and change. Authoritarian governments find the internet to be problematic for information control. Attempts to overcome this have met with mixed results such as in the case of the Arab Spring. China meanwhile maintains extensive and expensive controls over the infrastructure and content of its domestic internet, but with over two billion citizens, it is difficult to manage all of the user generated content.

Technologies such as smartphones, tablets, Wi-Fi, and the inexorable march of Moore’s Law make the internet even more accessible and affordable. The internet plays a growing role in the economies of all nations, especially in the developing world, and gains more users daily. Internet governance, however, has not significantly changed for the US; the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) still has oversight authority over ICANN ten years on.

Riposte: Surveillance in the Age of Digital Information

In 2013, former UN intelligence community member and consultant Edward Snowden began releasing classified documents describing aspects of US internet surveillance capabilities. These revelations surprised everyone except foreign intelligence communities and historians of intelligence. Globally, politicians decried this news to their outraged publics and called for reforms and action. The US internet sector came under fire for its cooperation with the US government. This information also provided renewed energy for weakening US oversight, authority, and purported control over the internet.[2]  The Snowden revelations advanced discussions of internet governance, privacy, and surveillance at the 2013 Bali Internet Governance Forum and similar venues. It also influenced the inception of the 2014 NETmundial meeting in Brazil.

In the face of this intelligence debacle, the US government riposted with a master stroke. In March of 2014, the NTIA announced its intent to relinquish its oversight over ICANN. This decision came with two major caveats. First, the NTIA is only willing to embrace a multistakeholder model which does not favor states. Secondly, while ICANN and the internet community discuss new governance mechanisms, the existing power structure will remain in place.

The NETmundial meeting showed the efficacy of the US stratagem. While the Snowden revelations were the catalyzing event for the meeting, many of the discussions were focused on the NTIA transition announcement as stakeholders discussed potential transition mechanisms. The NTIA announcement effectively diverted much of the diplomatic energy away from discussions of surveillance, directed it instead towards discussions of internet governance in an environment where the US government, through the NTIA, has established the ground rules. NETmundial also reinforced non-state actors’ quasi-sovereign status, which was to the US government’s advantage. For example, despite the Snowden revelations, non-state actors largely support the NTIA’s declaration which would give them an equal voice in internet governance. Non-state actors realize that state actors such as China or Russia would strip them of any trappings of sovereignty.

The US’s rival states were not idle at NETmundial however. The NETmundial meeting was very unusual in that states accorded non-state actors a quasi-sovereign negotiating status at the table as equals. This was a calculated strategy to change negotiations from multistakeholder discussions into diplomatic affairs. The nuance here is subtle but critical. States still control much of the game and non-state actors play at their sufferance. For states, internet governance is a policy issue domestically and a diplomatic issue internationally. Non-state actors mistake diplomacy for policy at their own peril. The rules and goals are different. For nations, internet governance is a game for states, perhaps the “Great Game” of the 21st century. Non-state actors that continue to treat internet governance as “policymaking” will fail. As in any game, non-state actors have to understand the players and their goals if they are to achieve any measure of success, lest they be simple state pawns. Post-NETmundial discussions among policy advocates reflect the perceived loss by non-state actors. Non-state actors do not have the long term strategic vision or institutional memories of states, putting them at a disadvantage. States by way of contrast are far more experienced. Large corporations increasingly occupy a middle ground by recruiting former diplomats into their policy arms.

Current Advantage: US

The US government still finds itself in an advantageous position in the Great Game. While its position has been damaged by the Snowden revelations, it has effectively persuaded and maneuvered discussions of internet governance onto favorable grounds. It has set the near term conditions for “winning” through the NTIA’s declaration. It has filled the playing field with allies and successfully accorded them status. It has effectively quashed the ITU’s efforts to exert influence, if not control, over internet governance and, in doing so, compelled competing states to begrudgingly accept multistakeholderism. Competing governments are resisting by taking advantage of non-state actors’ failure to recognize the transition from multistakeholderism to diplomacy as well as non-state actors’ diplomatic inexperience and naiveté.

Going forward, building a non-state centric, multistakeholder mechanism to replace the NTIA is a key internet governance focus. If we assume that internet supremacy is a core US strategic interest, then the NTIA’s announcement does not threaten this supremacy and is in the US’s interest. It is simply a negotiating point of lesser value. It does however beg the question of what internet supremacy means to the US government and everyone else.


[1] US internet rival states tend to share a few characteristics. They tend to be authoritarian, restrict free speech, free assembly, and internet access. Additionally, the governments of such states tend to be concerned about their own domestic legitimacy. These concerns tend to fuel restrictions placed upon citizens and fears of the internet made manifest during the Arab Spring.

[2] Without digressing into a discussion of a so-called internet “kill switch,” I would observe that the US Constitution grants the President as Commander-in-Chief wide powers in time of war especially to protect roads of commerce and communication, the most recent example being the President George Bush’s directive to the FAA to close US airspace and issue a full ground stop. While unprecedented, the issue of its legality has not arisen in a court of law.


Featured Photo Credit:AttributionSome rights reserved by Ybot84

  1. Thomas Lowenhaupt

    Richard Hill called this article “lucid and accurate.” I agree. Being a non-diplomat participant, I’d appreciate some elaboration on the following:

    “Competing governments are resisting by taking advantage of non-state actors’ failure to recognize the transition from multistakeholderism to diplomacy as well as non-state actors’ diplomatic inexperience and naiveté.”

    Thank you.

    Tom Lowenhaupt

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  3. John Laprise

    Hi Tom,

    Public policy actors in a (developed world) national context are used to dealing with the state as a non-equal. They stake out strong positions and seek to influence policy makers. They fight tactically. Diplomacy is a game where a conference may mildly adjust the wording of a codicil. For a state this might be victory but few NGOs would see this as such. Taking uncompromising strong positions in a diplomatic context simply isolates the player while compromising in a national context can be a sign of weakness to one’s constituency.

  4. Mathew Thomas

    The author is absolutely right. The “Great Game” today of yet another empire – that of USA. The book, “The Wikileaks Files” (sub-titled – “The World According to US Empire”) – [ISBN – 13 – 978 – 1 – 78168 -874 – 8 (HB)] with an introduction by Julian Assange traces the build up of the US empire from early times (Monroe Doctrine) to the present day.

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