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An Internet Governance Update

John Levine

A lot of people (including me) are pretty upset at revelations of the breadth and scale of NSA spying on the Internet, which has created a great deal of ill will toward the US government? Will this be a turning point in Internet Governance?

No, smoke will continue to be blown and nothing will happen.

Governments are not monolithic. What people call Internet governance is mostly at the DNS application level, and perhaps the IP address allocation. The NSA is snooping down in the tubes, the underlying networks, and servers located in the U.S., where none of this matters. They do have a few DNS based attacks, but they'd work the same way regardless of who was running the real DNS servers.

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff addressed the UN:

Rousseff called on the UN oversee a new global legal system to govern the internet. She said such multilateral mechanisms should guarantee the "freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights" and the "neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.

This is what is known in technical circles as a crock. Nation states can and will spy on any traffic that passes through their territory. This shouldn't come as any surprise to people who are familar with, say, the history of World War I. (See Telegram, Zimmermann)

One detail that seems to elude a lot of the governance crowd is that the Internet is designed so that everything is voluntary. If you want to force networks to do stuff they are not inclined to do, the only modes of influence are threats of disconnection, or for networks within a specific country, legal pressure from their own government.

The countries that make all the noise have zero leverage over US networks because their networks have far more to lose than we do if they disconnect, both because so much content is hosted in the US, and because so many transit routes run through the US.

When I was at the ISOC/ITU/OAS spam day in Mendoza last week, I was talking to a guy who worked for a large Internet vendor. He told me that the pricing within Brazil is still so screwed up that it's often price competitive to buy circuits to Miami and peer with other Brazilian and South American networks there. As far as content neutrality, it's still in pretty good shape on long haul circuits, although I expect "neutrality" in the speech above is code for we don't want to pay the whole cost of circuits to Miami.

If Brazil wanted to stop US spying on their traffic, they could fix their domestic telephone prices and build a few domestic Internet exchanges, so their networks all exchanged traffic directly with each other, and with other South American networks, rather than via Miami. This would not be particularly expensive, although it would make the de facto telephone monopoly unhappy.

If Brazil built more submarine cables that went other places than the US, e.g. Africa and Europe, which would be a good idea for redundancy and shorter transit times, they'd probably be spied on less by the US, and more by whoever is at the other end of the cables. Someone commented that cables are expensive, but so are football stadiums.

Perhaps someday they'll have robust enough networks to route directly rather than through the US and enough going on other places to provide the content their users want without fetching it from the US, but building that is expensive. In governance discussions, spending one's own money has always been beyond the pale.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker. More blog posts from John Levine can also be read here.

Related topics: Access Providers, Internet Governance

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Comments

What Next? Ray Marshall  –  Oct 20, 2013 1:40 PM PDT

Will we have to remove our batteries from our cellphones to ensure the NSA is not listening to our conversations at our home, office, etc.?

A Bridge Too Far Gary Osbourne  –  Oct 21, 2013 10:19 PM PDT

If I am reading Mr. Levine's article correctly, the reasoning seems to be that, because much of the piping, protocols, and practices originate from (and largely remain with) the USA, they should continue in that fashion. While I can understand the logic of that argument, it seems the equivalent of an entity owning a private (and in this case, profitably tolled) bridge and claiming the right to (re)direct traffic and search any individual/vehicle, in some cases seizing what is found.

Because it is essentially the only bridge, its users have little choice but to meekly comply. Given the recent and continuing revelations regarding the NSA and given the countless exemples of ICANN's corruption and incompetence, is it any wonder that much of the rest of the world (and some in the USA) either want more control of the bridge or an entirely new one, or more.

We already have alternate roots, we have the Great (Fire) Wall of China, we have very little control over what will follow BitCoin, or Pirate Bay, or… What we are seeing is the increasing balkanization of the internet, whether it is ICANN or the ITU in nominal control is of little consequence. The center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Uh, no John Levine  –  Oct 22, 2013 7:42 AM PDT

You somehow seem to have read the article completely backwards. (Perhaps you could read it again.)

No amount of pontificating will make packets go anywhere other than where they go now. If people think it would be a good idea for more traffic to go places other than the US, they need to spend money and build the infrastructure to do it. In a few cases (e.g. Brazilian domestic vs. international phone rates) there are institutional issues, but mostly it's just the money.

Brave Digital World Alessandro Vesely  –  Oct 25, 2013 3:12 AM PDT

Today I heard Edward Luttwak, who is often hosted on Italian news-channels, saying "it's mandatory for politicians to raise formal complaints if their having been spied was published." In your words, smoke:  Spying and being spied are just a part of living.  For privacy, however, people who find it expensive to lay intercontinental cables can set up virtual networks instead.  The encryption overhead should still be shorter than, say, the delay introduced by satellite links.

IMHO, the real question is why (smart-) phones don't use TCP/IP for voice calls, e.g. with SIP, thereby enabling a full plethora of crypto-options like in mail and web settings.  The telephone monopoly would seem to be concerned with rates and profits rather than spying, or am I being too guileless?  VoIP suffers legal restrictions in some countries, such as requiring that fixed-telephones do analog signals only.  If politicians were interested in enabling low-cost privacy for the masses, they could just drop those restrictions…

Is it that simple? Steve DelBianco  –  Oct 25, 2013 7:56 PM PDT

John — Good piece, and I learned a lot. 

I'm amazed to learn that phone traffic between two Brazilians is routed thru Miami. And that any nation can protect its comms traffic from extra-national surveillance just by building its own exchange points.

Now, before i start re-purposing your points more broadly, ARE YOU SURE it's just that simple?

Thanks,
Steve DelBianco

Not quite John Levine  –  Oct 25, 2013 8:08 PM PDT

This isn't phone traffic, it's Internet data. The phone rates I am referring to are the ones for the leased lines you need to connect IP networks.  I suppose that if people use Skype or other OTT VoIP, it might go through Miami.

And, yes, I've talked to people, I'm pretty confident of the facts here.

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