When Turkey’s dictator blocked Twitter(s twtr) and YouTube(s goog) earlier this year, many citizens quickly found other ways to access the sites, proving further support for the adage that “the net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.”
The saying, and the tools that make such rerouting possible, are a testament to the flexible technical protocols that make the internet so accessible to so many people. Yet the ability of Turkish citizens to see blocked websites is also a triumph for the internet’s political protocols, which time and again lead unaffiliated people to unite in an effort to overcome censorship.
These unofficial political protocols, which defy formal definition, encourage access and expression over walls and silence. Today, at a time when governments are redoubling their attempts to censor the internet — not just in Turkey but in Iran, China and Russia — it’s helpful to explore where the internet’s political protocols developed in the first place, and how to protect and make them stronger.
The internet’s political protocols are like its technical protocols
When people talk about the future of the internet, it is typically as a technology rather than a political system. This includes the recent debate over ICANN, the non-profit agency that now oversees the Internet Domain Name System.
When the U.S. government proposed in March to divest its symbolic oversight of ICANN, there was immediate uproar — critics feared that the process for assigning addresses on the internet, and the internet itself, would fall under the control of authoritarian regimes.
The most level-headed response to the outcry came from Jonathan Zittrain, a computer science and law professor at Harvard, who pointed out that it would be hard for the U.N. or anyone else to exert control over the internet for the simple reason that it’s not really something that can be owned in the first place:
“The Internet was less a particular set of hardware and more a set of protocols…internet protocols at large aren’t implemented through anyone’s fiat; they are generated through open processes channeled through unincorporated organizations.”
Zittrain’s point is that the internet consists of open technical standards developed by many people in many places, and that there is no central switch to rip up these standards or turn them off. The internet is not like an iPhone, whose technological evolution is defined by one company. Rather, it’s an open technology where common protocols are developed and maintained by many people.
So far, the political rules of the internet have evolved in much the way as its technical ones. The protocol for participating and behaving on the internet were not dictated by many government, but instead emerged organically through myriad community interactions that transcended any single nation or agency.
Sure, groups publish manifestos or declarations from time to time about the laws of the internet; some are serious, and others like Godwin’s Law are less so but, in either event, no one really pays that much attention. And while national governments certainly try to exert control over the internet, the limits of their power are regularly exposed: people use graffiti to point to “open DNS” addresses where Turkish people can access Twitter; Canadians use Tor and proxy servers to access American TV shows they are “geo-fenced” from watching; Chinese journalists use linguistic tricks to discuss political topics that censors want to ban.
Now, however, the balance of power could be shifting.
Rise of the “national” internet
The internet by its nature is a global technology — it’s called the world wide web for a reason. But recently, autocratic politicians are trying to recast it a country-based communications system instead. This could ultimately lead to the sort of protocols implemented “by fiat” that Zittrain has said are not currently possible.
The source of danger is governments in Russia, Brazil and elsewhere, which are touting the idea of “internet sovereignty.” The phrase is being used to justify the shutting off large swathes of the internet from the outside world as a way to protect citizens from corrupt foreign influences.
The Iranian government, for instance, has long invoked the need for a “halal internet,” while Russian politicians have painted open internet defenders as the “pedophile lobby,” and sought to cleanse the internet for Russian citizens. Turkish dictator Recep Erdogan, meanwhile, has justified his campaign against Twitter and YouTube on the grounds of national and security interests.
So far, censorship efforts in places like Iran and China are taking the form of mass “filternets,” rather than the more extreme step of replacing the internet in a country’s borders with a national intranet. But the scrubbing of social media sites like YouTube and Twitter, and news sites like the New York Times and Bloomberg — combined with new laws calling for data to be stored at a national level — has accelerated in the last year, and is changing the web from a global to a national entity.
That is why the rise of “internet sovereignty” is so dangerous: it provides a political protocol for autocrats to attack the integrity of a connected web. If the idea gains further traction, it could lead to governments not only shutting off larger portions of the web, but eventually changing the technical protocols that make the internet a unitary technology in the first place.
Halting the rise of the “national internet,” will thus require not only the technology to help citizens evade censorship, but also the political will to defend the principle of an international internet.
The political protocol for a free internet will be found outside governments
As repressive governments flex their muscles in the internet space, it’s tempting to look to democratic governments to help stop them. This is the discussion that takes place, for instance, as Russia invades Ukraine or as China projects aggression into the seas of East Asia.
In the case of the internet, however, the most effective response to repressions will occur beyond the realm of governments. This is true on the level of technical protocols, where privacy tools like TOR developed by nonprofit groups working across states, are helping people access the internet free of surveillance. As governments in Turkey and elsewhere tighten the screws on the internet, such tools will only become more important.
But those new privacy protocols, described in detail by my colleague David Meyer, are only half the equation. The other half is ensuring that there is the political power to distribute them and ensure they can be adopted.
And, once again, the tools to strengthen the political protocol for a free internet lie outside the control of traditional government bodies — and even outside international bodies like the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (which oversees telephone long distance rates, but may be hungry for internet power).
Many of the most promising political tools are, perhaps surprisingly, coming from the legal and policy departments of technology companies like Google and Twitter. The so-called “Transparency Reports” they issue serve as flares to warn where and how governments are suppressing the internet, and the legal challenges they are deploying in Turkey are serving to slow, if not check, censorship activities.
Meanwhile, civil society groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are also active in distributing privacy tools, and in energizing online populations around the world to stand up for free internet communication and to talk to each other across national boundaries.
Finally, the media — in all its forms — will have an essential role in ensuring the political protocol of the internet stays open and free. The very act of reporting, by a giant TV company or a brave single blogger, reinforces the idea that speech and discussion is not limited to national boundaries and that the internet belongs to people, not governments.
Check out the rest of our special report below:
Images from Byman Designs/Thinkstock, Twitter and Mr. Vi/Thinkstock. Banner image adapted from Hong Li/Thinkstock. Logos adapted from The Noun Project: Castor and Pollux, Antsey Design, Mister Pixel and Bjorn Andersson.