Two think tanks have launched a two-year investigation of internet governance and surveillance, a week after President Barack Obama pledged to reform US intelligence policy. Chatham House and the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) announced the 25-member commission at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling on them to investigate how to balance civil rights, appropriate regulation, online threats, and economic interests. The panel's work includes answering general questions about the future of the internet, but in a release, its founders cite two particular areas of concern.
First, a number of authoritarian states are waging a campaign to exert greater state control over critical internet resources. Second, revelations about the nature and extent of online surveillance have led to a loss of trust. Collectively, these circumstances have created a need to update legacy mechanisms for internet governance; but deadlocks in international dialogue mean the potential exists for the fragmentation of the internet.
Russia, Turkey, and other countries have increasingly cracked down on the web in recent years, and the possibility of authoritarian state-by-state control was an issue in 2012's internet governance debate. Over the last year, though, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has released documents suggesting that the US and UK have tapped into internet backbone connections to gather information, among other surveillance efforts.
"Revelations about the nature and extent of online surveillance have led to a loss of trust."
The Global Commission on Internet Governance, as the panel is called, is one of many projects to investigate internet surveillance, but it's notable for its independence from government agencies and its high-profile members. It's chaired by Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, and other members include venture capitalist and former Apple Europe manager Pascal Cagni, White House Open Government Initiative founder Beth Simone Noveck, influential political scientist and National Intelligence Council chair Joseph Nye, and several members of think tanks and a variety of national internet associations. The list also includes Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security and co-author of the Patriot Act.
As the commission kicks off, White House spokesperson Jay Carney has said that Obama administration officials are "hard at work" on the reforms that were promised last week, and that they are attempting to meet the two-month deadline for presenting a way to move phone records out of the government's direct control. His response contrasts with the opinion of some present and former officials, who told The Washington Post that the timeline was "very unlikely, if not impossible." Most of the direct changes will have to go through agencies like the NSA or FBI, despite the efforts of Congress to introduce reform. One of the most outspoken critics of surveillance, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) used his platform at Davos to reiterate a common refrain: that the NSA's efforts have sacrificed American privacy without concrete benefits. "In the United States, which should be one of the freest countries to express yourself, we are collecting far too much information," he said in a panel discussion. "It is not making us safer."