Walking the Tightrope: Multinational Technology Corporations and Global Internet Governance in the Age of Government Surveillance

Ryan Spagnolo is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

As the internet has come of age in the era of globalization, it has brought both significant benefits and new challenges to global communication. The multinational technology companies who provide internet services have had to weigh the benefits, costs, and risks involved in entering the industry. One major risk centers on their relationship with governments. Revelations of extensive government surveillance, and the related movement to “internationalize” and democratize internet governance have introduced the potential for disruptive and perhaps seismic shifts in how the internet operates. Multinational companies are in the process of developing strategies to address these foreign policy challenges and to protect their interests within the current global governance structure.

The theme for this year’s Milton Wolf Seminar was therefore timely. Significant portions of the discussions addressed how transformations occurring in global internet governance will influence corporate responses. The panelists identified three overarching themes as the drivers of the ongoing debates surrounding internet governance:

  1. The multistakeholder model of governance,
  2. Differing conceptions of Internet society, and
  3. “Democratizing” international control over the Internet.

In each scenario, multinational technology corporations play key roles in the evolution of the conversation and tailor their responses accordingly to meet future challenges.

Multistakeholder Governance

The first theme, the multistakeholder model for inclusive internet governance, has remained highly contested in terms of its ability to effectively address all the needs and gaps in the current management of the internet. Panelists in the Locating Internet Governance in the Diplomatic Machinery session pointed to several destabilizing characteristics of the current multistakeholder model, such as: masking structural abuse of power, legitimizing powerful actors, and enabling vulnerability to manipulation. Attempts to create an inclusive multistakeholder roadmap for the internet—as the NETmundial conference sought to do—face a large uphill battle against push-back from democratic and authoritarian governments alike. Despite this pushback, the panelists agreed on the need for greater transparency in internet governance decision-making processes and the need to include governments, industry (the technology corporations), and civil society (technology users as rights holders). The reticence of governments to include non-state actors–namely, businesses and civil society–in the policy formulation process reflects the greater challenge of successfully integrating multi-stakeholder involvement in internet governance. Where, then, is the resolution and how can multinational technology companies leverage their influence to respond to this challenge?

In the absence of a formal multistakeholder structure of internet governance, technology companies have created their own multistakeholder forums. The Global Network Initiative (GNI), for instance, provides an informal forum, for consultation between technology companies, non-profit human rights organizations, and responsible investing firms, on how to safeguard user freedom of speech and right to privacy in the face of government intervention. Still nascent in its reach, the GNI has enabled technology companies to learn how to respond to government demands for information, to assess and ameliorate their own impact on human rights, and to better communicate these policies to their users. Although none of the recommendations and solutions laid out by non-profit organizations are binding to technology companies, the forum provides a mechanism for technology companies to reform their practices in a way that mitigates risk. The Global Network Initiative and similar forums of engagement can therefore help to bring greater visibility to multistakeholder concerns surrounding internet governance and provide technology companies with the opportunity (if they are willing) to translate and integrate those concerns into their business policies.

Conceptions of the Internet Society

As highlighted by Seminar discussions, this second theme forces the technology sector to examine how their various countries of operation conceive of the internet society. Panelists in the Information Regimes and the Future of the Media session referred to different types of framing—such as freedom of expression versus the right to privacy—as the basis for how different societies view their relationship with the internet. Emphasis on the right to privacy, for instance, resonates strongly in many European countries. EU member states have been instrumental in codifying the right to privacy in several international treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Alternately, the concept of freedom of speech on the internet resonates more strongly among US users, given its centrality in the American constitutional process and the Bill of Rights.

Outside of the Global North, especially within the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), framing of the internet society is context-specific. Panelists in the Foreign Policies of the Internet: Key Actors and Debates session highlighted the social construction of the internet in Russia, for instance, through the lens of security imagery. The internet is a battlefield in cyber warfare, a space for crime and fraud, a space for propagating normative threats to traditional values, and a space for foreign agents. This imagery, along with the absence of voices for alternative social conceptions, explains why Russians are more comfortable with internet censorship than citizens in most other countries in the world. Panelists also described the Chinese conception of the ideal internet society as one that prioritizes justice over freedom in terms of civil society’s relationship with government internet regulation.

However, government policy is not always an accurate reflection of public opinion within the country, as exemplified by this Pew Research study on internet freedom in emerging markets. For instance, despite the widespread institutionalization of internet censorship in China, freedom of speech advocates have found ways to circumvent government system by setting up proxy servers as virtual private networks (VPNs) or speaking in code to get around automatic filters. Moreover, mass protests around the 2012 elections revealed that although many Russians support government control over information flows on the internet, a greater activist movement for freedom of expression in the blogosphere and social media is emerging, especially among the younger generation. Therefore, multinational technology companies must delicately balance the demands of civil society, public opinion, and official government regulation in countries around the world.

Multinational technology corporations have a mixed record in taking the cultural considerations of internet governance into account. Three patterns emerge in the interaction between cultural influences and corporate behavior. First, some companies operate under unique political contexts. Chinese and Russian web companies employ human censors in order to comply with government regulations over the flow of information. Baidu and Sina Weibo in China and Yandex and Vkontakte in Russia represent homegrown businesses that reflect this trend. These instances demonstrate the potential complicity that businesses have in perpetuating government surveillance and absolute control over personal communications, information, and expression.

Second, some companies set the tone for conceiving the internet society, especially in post-conflict environments and areas with a large digital divide. The Contested Internets: Censorship and Surveillance as Fault Lines panel pointed to two examples in particular where this is the case: in sub-Saharan Africa, where internet connectivity is still novel to large parts of the continent, and in Myanmar, which is largely a blank slate for building up the information and communication systems infrastructure. In Myanmar, two companies are competing for the licensing rights to build the national telecommunications structure. One is the socially responsible Telenor, a Norwegian company who is a member of the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on freedom of expression and right to privacy issues. The other is the Qatari company Ooredoo, which was complicit in enabling smart filters and shutting down services during the Arab Spring. How these competing ideologies will play out in Myanmar’s post-authoritarian political and social scene reflects the power of technology companies in shaping internet society and connectivity.

Third, some companies evolve with civil society’s understanding of its internet rights. European Union regulations, for instance, reflect civil society’s concerns about rights to information privacy and the responsibility of multinational technology companies in regards to those rights.  As a result, multinational corporations either develop self-regulation strategies or better corporate social responsibility mechanisms to satisfy their consumer bases regarding privacy protection. In this scenario, governments either play the advocate role or the adversary role regarding corporate actions. As advocates, governments enforce regulations to protect user privacy and freedom of expression from corporate mishandling. As adversaries, governments provoke corporations into balancing their duty and responsibility to protect user information with their legal compliance regarding government requests for information. In either case, corporations are beginning to develop corporate social responsibility strategies and processes for dealing with this dilemma. Almost all of the major technology companies provide a transparency report documenting the number of government requests for information that they receive, and have issued human rights statements outlining rudimentary guidelines for conducting due diligence and impact assessments about how user information is safeguarded.

Democratizing International Control over the Internet

The third theme discussed at the Seminar involves international control over internet governance. This highly contentious issue gained little traction before the Snowden revelations. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—dominated by the United States in terms of representation and policy formulation—currently plays a central role in internet governance. However, as internet services and networks have globalized, states have pushed to “democratize” control over internet governance by bringing its administration under an international body. Although attempts at the World Summit for Information Society and the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai failed to bring internet governance underneath the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the revelations about US government surveillance activities have now invigorated alternative proposals. The Strategies for Governing Communications: Between the Global and the Local panel, for instance, discussed German and Brazilian proposals to route data traffic through internal national servers rather than relying on the American-dominated system. Brazil, in particular, has been championing responsible internet governance through its own legislation (a bill of rights for the Internet passed its Chamber of Deputies in March 2014) and its hosting of the global NETmundial conference in April 2014. As a result of international pressures following the exposure of American surveillance activities, the United States has promised to decrease its control over ICANN (the US Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration oversees key ICANN functions) in order to repair its relationships with foreign governments. All of these drastic changes to internet governance ultimately promise to have a great impact on how multinational technology companies operate in different countries.

The main concern of multinational technology corporations is that more international control over internet governance will only increase instances of government censorship and stifle innovation in the online sphere with onerous bureaucratic policies. In response, technology companies have organized into industry alliances, such as the Global Government Surveillance Reform alliance, that lobby for changes in internet governance. These industry groups are informal and fledgling at best, but they reflect the growing trend of industry players banding together. By leveraging their networks and government contacts, multinational technology companies plan to influence the direction of these negotiations and clamor for greater participation in the multistakeholder process.

Multinational technology corporations are only beginning to conceive of how they fit into the larger geopolitical context of internet governance. They are taking both collective and individual action to mitigate the impact of these changes as a way to preserve their interests and to advocate (occasionally) on the behalf of others. As further proposals from governments and international organizations shift the course of conversations about internet governance, technology companies will be at the forefront of those important decision-making processes and will continue to devise –as they currently do– their own unique strategies for meeting future challenges.


Ryan Spagnolo is a second year master’s student and a Hitachi Center for Technology and International Affairs Scholar at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His academic research focuses on multinational technology companies’ responses to government surveillance and global Internet governance challenges. Professionally, Ryan has previously worked as a marketing associate for Apprise Software and as a program officer for the American Bar Association’s Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice in Washington, DC. He has also served as an Economic Sector intern for the U.S. Department of State Mission to the European Union. He holds a B.A. in History, cum laude, from Cornell University. Twitter: @RyanSpagnolo

  1. Andrew Smallwood

    Hi Ryan, Great Article. It will be extremely difficult to monitor some of these entities to make sure they are following all the rules. There is no “real” privacy on the internet anyway, not in my opinion so I’m not sure how they intend to effectively control anything.

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