Internet and statehood – the battle over informational asymmetries  21.4.10

“Everything that can be thought is thought at some time or another. Now or in the future.”
“Those things which were thought can never be unthought.”
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Physicists

Ralf Bendrath and I gave a presentation on “statehood and internet” at this year’s re:publica conference in Berlin. Re:publica is an annual conference for internet aficionados, bloggers, internet activists and, ever more so, politicians and public authority representatives involved in internet regulation. For the first time organised in 2007, it has by now risen to host some 2500 visitors and has been extensively covered (DE) by old-media outlets.

We used the opportunity of the China-Google/US conflict to discuss basic relationships between states and private actors, a question raised (both links DE) in the blogosphere and media, and some general perspectives of internet politics.

The rich body literature on global governance has identified and thoroughly analysed these basic variants:

  • States and private actors jointly set rules on either global or national scale. An example for this would be if US government agrees with Google to treat internet censorship as a trade barrier. Another example: Icelandic parliament supports Wikileaks with their Icelandic Modern Media Initiative to create an informational safe haven.
  • Private actors ignore state-set rules. The persevere existence of file-sharing is one prime example for this with PirateBay as its, by now broken, incorporation.
  • Rules are primarily set by states, but with option to exit the market by private actors. Their is an abundance of examples for this. States set law, corporations follow suite. Google spokesman Brian Richardson in an Wired article: “Obviously, we follow the law like any other company.“ Or exit the legislative territory.

While I don’t want to transcribe our presentation, I’d like to highlight a few topics we were discussing.

In an interview with NPR back in early 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt outlined Goole’s reasoning for entering the Chinese market three years before.

“The decision that we ultimately came to with China was that it was better to engage rather than be estranged. The Chinese citizens will eventually rebel over some of these — in our view — idiotic restrictions, because they are now aware of them. They now know that information is being withheld from them by law and that those laws will be overturned from public pressure over time.”

The strategic concept is simple: Stirring rebellion by censoring and publishing censorship. Chinese internet readers would realise that they are deprived of information and thus of freedom, get angry, unite, fight the government and change internet regulation. Easy as that. A “perfected storm” (Philippa Malmgreen) on the financial front sounds like a more plausible US foreign strategy to deal with China and contain and retard its rise to the top of international politics. But I wouldn’t blame Eric Schmidt here, US foreign policy pundits had talked about this strategic approach for years. (e.g. Kalathil 2003, Dot Com for Dictators; Metzl 2001, Network Diplomacy, Arquilla/Ronfeldt, Noopolitik) From that perspective, Google was indeed kind of privately run Radio Free Europe. And I would assume that many pundits in Washington involved in foreign politics shared this perspective. Eric Schmidt himself seems to very engaged in questions about perpetuating and stabilising America’s global stance and Western liberal democracies: “Set against this sober assessment of the future of liberal democracies, we have to come to grips with the new strength and success of those countries which don’t fit neatly into the traditional Davos model. China, of course, tops this list.” (Quoted in: Huffington Post, 11.2.2010) Strategic thinking in Foreign Affairs, such as the latest piece of Anne-Marie Slaughter still considers the internet as a valuable resource for the US hegemonic status, yet it’s less about stirring rebellions and virtual diplomacy, but about exploiting competitive advantages by non-hierarchical, open communities and transnational networking.

Spreading information is one side of the coin, gathering information the other. (Maybe the coin-methapher is detrimental here, as dealing with information consists of more than two processes; computation, organisation etc. need to be added. Anyhow.) Utilising information, information technology and the internet has been discussed by US foreign policy thinkers ever since the rise of the internet. Joseph Nye’s and Owen’s article “America’s Information Edge” was seminal in its attempt to instrumentalise the internet and its technologies for US strategic goals. While concepts like “system of systems” and “information umbrella”, which ought to span the US and their allies (with different degrees regarding the latter), mainly referred to military information (think of battlefield information dominance), it also conveyed a touch of, well, political information awareness.

(I haven’t found literature on this topic providing further details here. So either this branch of strategic thinking is discontinued, which I do not believe given the number of citations according to Google Scholar. Or its so obvious that no further discussion has been necessary and all that has been of interest is how to operationalise such a strategy. And that for sure is something that wouldn’t happen in Foreign Affairs and some RAND studies.)

The instrumental use of the internet is hardly ever mentioned in internet governance discourses and debates, especially in economic approaches which tend to have a blind spot for more fundamental political questions, anyway. But on the empirical side, what we can observe there, is the battle over informational dominance in many societal dimensions, non just the military one. While a state monopoly of informational power for sure won’t emerge, some of the current policy approaches could be labelled as attempts to erect some informational asymmetries and hence change the rules of the game for certain actor constellations.

The government–terrorist/suspected citizen relations were fundamentally changed by the information aggregation policies in the 9/11 aftermath. Discussions about TIA, the total/terrorism information awareness program, followed. Back in 2003, Markle Foundation’s Task Force on National Security in the Information Age provided still stunning work on which governmental/corporate/private data sources would need to be combined. (Cf. screenshot) And now, then ten years after, the European Commission is planning for a 2012 “Green paper on commercial information relevant to law enforcement and information exchange models”. (p. 30; kudos to Ralf for that hint) By using massive informational resources provided by state organisations and private corporations, security agencies have been able to overcome their ignorance over some malevolent perpetrators. But it comes with a hefty price tag attached.

Information aggregation policies certainly have an effect on relations between states/private corporations and individual citizens and customers. For sure, it’s under-researched. Google, to name just one, is feeling the heat of user criticism about their data aggregation practices. Their efforts of fostering freedom of expression might be laudable (well), the amount of information voluntarily and possibly in part unnecessarily gathered by their systems and services contradicts some fundamental privacy recommendations. While Google itself might have no economic incentives to exploit their vast amount of information about individual users, this stance might vanish in the long run. Today, their data aggregations are already sought after by governments and we have no idea to which extent this is happening.

Google’s reaction (and of other corporations in the data aggregation segment) to questions about their unavoidable cooperation with governments has been so far: “We don’t comment on any discussions we may or may not have had with any national intelligence agency.” (Chrisine Chen, Google, Policy Communications Manager)

This week, Google has launched a website to share some statistical data about government requests. But still, their information does reveal hardly anything about quality and quantity of data shared with state authorities and private intelligence providers, as we don’t know what a request covers and the data stream it entails. (“Requests may ask for data about a number of different users or just one user. A single request may ask for several types of data…”) Google is walking an impossibly fine line, here, between kowtowing to government requests on the one side and not handing-in user (who are usually not their paying customers) interests. (Jeff Rosen described earlier challenges of Google’s policy department in the NYT in 2008.)

From the individuals’ perspective, this is a change for the worse. Normatively, an individual would likely want to be in control over every bit of data relating to her personal life. Some business models (search, marketing, intelligence, etc.), however, rely on an detrimental approach to individuals’ privacy and data protection rights. The same holds true for government responsibilities such as domestic security, taxation, public health, or emergency operations. While it is worthwhile to discuss the value of openness, the political debate for the years to come will have to address rising informational asymmetries that discriminate individuals against governments and corporations.

One Comment on “Internet and statehood – the battle over informational asymmetries”

  1. 1 Tweets that mention netdefences » Blog Archive » Internet and statehood – the battle over informational asymmetries -- said at 04:08 on April 22nd, 2010:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Arnold Melm, Andreas Schmidt. Andreas Schmidt said: Zu Internet und Staatlichkeit, dem Vortrag von Ralf @bendrath und mir auf der #rp10 [...]