Voice

The Dubai Internet showdown

In Dubai, the World Conference on International Telecommunications is hurtling toward its scheduled conclusion tomorrow. The conference has attracted worldwide media coverage (and a few hackers), mostly because of the potential for a showdown over control of the Internet. Tech giants, including Microsoft and Google, have pushed hard against proposals by some states that the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) move into internet governance. Here's a roundup of recent reporting and reaction:

The Economist's Babbage column describes the battle-lines:

The main issue is still unresolved: to what extent the internet will feature in the new treaty (or in a separate, non-binding resolution). China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries want to give governments "equal rights to manage the internet", according to a draft proposal published earlier this week. Fearing that this would lead to more censorship online and allow governments to meddle with the internet’s very infrastructure, America—backed by many countries in Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region—is pushing hard to limit the new treaty to old-style telecoms.

Russia Today sees the internet governance issue as one of U.S. dominance:

Several countries including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia are reportedly seeking to reduce US dominance over the Internet. If successful the move will empower governments to silently eliminate troublesome websites.

The New York Times editorial board lauds the United States and Western Europe for fighting the good fight:

[A] group of countries led by Russia and China are trying to use the deliberations, the first in 24 years and taking place under United Nations auspices, to undermine the open spirit of the Internet. The United States, the European Union and other countries have rightly resisted any such effort, which is also supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Bahrain. 

Whether they've prevailed is still unclear. Yesterday, proponents of greater UN control scored an apparent victory. Via the Associated Press:

A rival group — including China, Russia, Gulf Arab states and others — favors U.N. backing for a stronger sway by governments over all levels of Internet affairs.

They appeared to win a critical preliminary battle early Thursday when the meeting's chairman declared consensus on a proposal for a more "active" government role in Internet dealings. There was no formal vote, but Mohammed Nasser al-Ghanim said he based his decision on "the temperature of the room" following marathon negotiations.

That brought an immediate backlash from the U.S. and its backers, which questioned the procedure and vowed to keep any new Internet rules from the final treaty by the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union, or ITU.

The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration won't sign anything unless there are major changes:

The Obama administration is refusing to sign a U.N. treaty under consideration at a major global telecommunications conference because of provisions that it says would give a U.N. stamp of approval to state censorship and regulation of the Internet and private networks.

“We can’t conceive of a signing the text without a major revision at this point,” a senior administration official said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

In this CNET analysis, a former International Telecommunications Union official argues that the ITU and its leadership may have jeopardized their standing by cozying up to authoritarian governments:

Rutkowski told CNET that some are pushing harder for change. "It appears that Russia, the Arab and African blocs, plus a bunch of other allies have definitely indicated they do," he said. "It's unclear how successful they will be in using ITU instruments and bodies to do this [...] There is a substantial likelihood that the ITU will just be further shunned by everyone."

The Multilateralist

Will special ops keep NATO relevant?

NATO's top military commander announced today the formation of a new headquarters designed to help coordinate the special forces of alliance members:

The new [NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ)] will enable the special forces of these nations to better train, plan, and work together. As [Supreme Allied Commander James]  Stavridis noted during the opening ceremony, "I expect this to be a venue for ideas about equipment and technology. We can share and learn from each other.” Additionally, NSHQ acts as the coordinator for all Special Forces across NATO operations by directing the activities of Special Operations Component Commands. The new headquarters, which accommodates about 200 personnel will be the centrepiece of NATO Special Operations well into the 21st Century.

This Associated Press account of the announcement casts it almost entirely in the context of NATO's challenging fiscal environment:

In a ceremony in Mons, Belgium, NATO's supreme commander Adm. James Stavridis said the new command centre will ensure that the national contingents continue to develop their capabilities by training together.

The move comes as NATO is reforming its forces across the alliance. NATO's new philosophy of "smart defence" calls on members to share resources and equipment in order to reduce duplication.

"The ultimate point of smart defence is to build connections," Stavridis said at the opening ceremony.

Twenty of NATO's 28 member countries have cut their defence budgets since the Europe's financial crisis began in 2008. Military spending, which has already shrunk 15 per cent in the past decade, is set to plunge further as part of the austerity measures implemented by many European governments to cope with the continent's debt crisis...

Austerity is an important part of the story here, but so too is the alliance's hunt for new ways of keeping its members operationally engaged with each other. As I've noted here in the past, NATO is facing an imminent lull in activity as the Afghanistan mission winds down. A new report by the NATO Defense College makes the point succinctly:

NATO's operational tempo is decreasing: the training mission in Iraq was terminated in 2011; the Alliance is set to move KFOR [its Kosovo mission] to a deterrent presence posture; the counter-piracy and counter-terrorism missions, Operation Ocean Shield and Operative Active Endeavor respectively, have been reduced; most importantly, in 2014 the NATO-led combat mission in Afghanistan--the Alliance's major operational commitment--will become history and the Alliance will start leading a training mission. This situation presents NATO with the strategic problem of identifying other fields of mutual interest outside the context of ISAF, to engage its partners and keep them interested in maintaining this engagement with the Alliance.

The huge stabilization missions that have been the alliance's post-Cold War bread-and-butter are disappearing. Whether any new ones (in Syria perhaps?) will emerge is anyone's guess. In this environment, the alliance faces the real prospect of becoming non-operational. NATO's bid to get more deeply involved in special-forces operations—which will almost certainly continue—is at least as much about keeping the alliance relevant as it is about saving its members money.