Internet Control Issues: It's Not Just China

Fighting international cyber-terrorism isn’t easy, but it’s a mission on which we can all agree, right? Not so fast.

Russia has been pushing a proposal in The United Nations agency for information technology, which describes the greatest cyber-threat not as hacking or stealing but as using the Internet to spread ideas that might undermine a country. Russia wants any such use of the Internet classified as “aggression,” and hence illegal under the UN Charter.

Sounds like China right? Yes, but check out this awfully teal map of countries that agree. It seems that a lot of the world seems more aligned with the Chinese view of controlling any information that may be considered subversive than they’re aligned with the high-minded Western ideals of freedom of speech and access to information. Most notably they include the other BRICs: India, Brazil and Russia. In fact, it’s Brazil that has asked Google to remove more content from the Web than any other nation this year. Brazil made more than double the requests of the next closest country, Libya.

NPR covered the story this morning, but it’s not a new shift in thinking. Russia has actually tried to introduce this information-arms-control-like agreement every year since 1998. So why do we only jump up and down about China? Presumably, under Russia’s proposition, Iran could hold Twitter accountable for giving people the ability to change their avatars to green or any Middle Eastern country could hold Facebook accountable for providing a platform by which people de-radicalize potential suicide bombers.

It’s a delicate issue for the US diplomatically and inside the US– way bigger than “Googlegate” because, well, I refer you again to the map. The issue doesn’t seem to be about different political systems, but rather different levels of stabilization in more chaotic emerging markets. Near-unfettered Internet freedoms aren’t always as high a priority in these countries, not because they’re evil, but because there are more pressing problems of gun violence, terrorism, or a paucity of food, water, jobs and basic infrastructure.

I usually try not to get into a lather about protecting Internet freedoms in other countries, because I don’t think it’s the job of private sector tech companies who are supposed to be international to act as tools to enforce Western-style democracy. Freedom and democracy are two different things. Some “democratic” countries I’ve reported in are more repressive in day-to-day life than other authoritarian countries. In addition, I believe that Google would have done more good by staying in China and working within the system than pulling out with a pouty “We don’t like their laws” as Eric Schmidt said on the Colbert Report this week. (To which Colbert astutely asked how long did it took for Google to start disliking China’s laws.)

But this is something different. It’s not about whether other countries should be allowed to control what happens within their borders and whether US companies simply chose to do business there or not, based on local laws. At stake are new rules that would bring international United Nations justification to draw sovereign boundaries around many different Internets. At stake is making it OK to build powerful new Web 2.0 technologies like Facebook and Twitter at the borders of the Western world– not with an easy-to-circumvent Great Firewall but with internationally-accepted rules against freedom of information and expression.  Talk about unintended consequences in a debate we thought was about identity theft and hacking.

On a more crass, business note, this could have a chilling impact on US Internet companies expansion into lucrative emerging markets. So far China is the only country that’s developed larger audiences for its own homegrown Internet companies than US versions in almost every category. That makes not only political sense but business sense because China is so culturally and linguistically different and the market is so much more advanced in terms of entrepreneurship, venture capital and the wild-west IPO markets of Shanghai, Hong Kong and the new Startup Board in Shenzhen.

But so far, US companies do better in many categories in India and Indonesia– because the Internet has grown slower giving less opportunity for locals to build big companies and more challenges with monetization. When the percentage of the population online is this small, frequently the people online are city-dwelling, affluent multinational employees or office workers who also speak English, making the need for, say, a local-grown Hindi Facebook a lot less immediate. And on a platform like Twitter, there are even fewer cultural and language restrictions because the site is so simple, how people use it localizes it.

But comparatively isolationist countries like Russia and Brazil could easily fork off with a more local versions of sites dominating as their markets grow. It’s not hard to see how local, business pressures could drive this diplomacy around blocking ideas on Western sites– they way some people allege it already has in China. And–on a more banal level than the future of freedom in the world–that would be disastrous for older Web companies in the US counting on emerging markets to grow.

This problem is not going to go away– and not just because Russia appears to introduce it every year. By 2050, the US will be the only G7 nation that is still one of the largest nations in the world. Its testament to the sheer size and resilience of the “world’s only Superpower” that we’ll still be no. 2. At least we’ll still have a strong say in the way the world runs. But sharing power with modern, emerging markets that have had a totally different history and experience with the 20th century will likely take the bulk of the 21st century to figure out– especially when it comes to border-less technology issues like the environment and the Internet.

I criticized Groupon last week for running too fast with its international strategy before it had stabilized its lock on the US market. But the flipside of that argument is that at least Groupon executives are getting a better picture of what the Internet will look like in this new world.