The necessary heresy of American exceptionalism.

A few days after I wrote about the Russian government’s interest in getting involved with the regulation of the internet, I read a host of stories about how Russia isn’t actually going to steal the internet.  Clearly not – but if you think the people of Russia have as much right to an open internet as you, then the government they live under should be kept from ever having a voice in the future of the internet.  And more than ever, the actions of the world’s autocratic governments with respect to the internet will eventually come home to us as well – primarily in the form of increased self-censorship by entities looking to do business in Russia and China.

Brian Fung at the Washington Post reported that “Even Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, thinks the worries about China and Russia taking over are needless.”

While those countries may have the ability to censor their own citizens, they couldn’t project that power overseas and decide to censor the American Internet even if the governance system allowed it, which it doesn’t.

It’s hard to argue with the father of the internet, but I’m going to give it a go.  True, Russia and China, can’t directly censor our internet, but their power and wealth, as well of their lack of accountability with respect to their own people in disposing of that power and wealth, means that a multistakeholder form of internet governance will not stop Russia and China from promoting self-censorship on the internet and, over time, bending the rules of the this form of internet governance to benefit their own ends.  It won’t be a quick process, but whenever the opportunity to act in pursuit of greater control over the internet presents itself, these governments will act in that pursuit.  Their influence over the internet today in other countries is evidence of this, and because only states can stand up to other states in the long term, our state – America – needs to stay right where it is with respect to internet governance.

For example, the rise of massive transnational corporations has fooled some people into believing that corporations can rival nation states as power brokers in today’s world.  But every company interested in perpetuating its own existence in a foreign country will bow to that country’s government as far as it can without doing harm to its bottom line.  Bloomberg News – owned by the multibillionaire former mayor of New York City himself, Michael Bloomberg – is already censoring itself to maintain its balance sheets in China.  Last November, the New York Times reported that Bloomberg News pulled several stories about senior Chinese officials that it was worried could anger the Chinese government.

In the call late last month, Mr. Winkler defended his decision, comparing it to the self-censorship by foreign news bureaus trying to preserve their ability to report inside Nazi-era Germany, according to Bloomberg employees familiar with the discussion.  “He said, ‘If we run the story, we’ll be kicked out of China,’ ” one of the employees said. Less than a week later, a second article, about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks, was also declared dead, employees said.

Bloomberg is not operating on empty threats.  China does not fool around when it comes to disciplining American companies who refuse to self-censor themselves.

Bloomberg News infuriated the government in 2012 by publishing a series of articles on the personal wealth of the families of Chinese leaders, including the new Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping. Bloomberg’s operations in China have suffered since, as new journalists have been denied residency and sales of its financial terminals to state enterprises have slowed. Chinese officials have said repeatedly that news coverage on the wealth and personal lives of Chinese leaders crosses a red line.

I remember reading these particular stories back in 2012.  They were good stories.  It’s map of China’s “Red Nobility” is especially well done.  But I don’t imagine I’ll be reading anything like them from Bloomberg News anytime soon.

Not every company bows every time, of course.  Google deserves credit for leaving China once the government’s self-censorship requirements became even more strict than they were when Google entered the Chinese market.  But as Rebecca Fannin put it in a Forbes piece from 2010, it’s easy to give up if you’ve already lost the battle.  Google only found its backbone with respect to China because it had already been beaten by Chinese search giant Baidu.  With nothing to lose, Google made the most of its lackluster operations in China by finding its ideals when their exercise made no real difference.

No major American corporation can, or at least will, stand up to a foreign government when that foreign government is determined to have its way.  For all we hear about this new century, political power still grows out of the barrel of a gun.  When the chips are down, a functioning autocratic national government, with its monopoly on force, will either crush or expel a functioning corporation every time.

All of this impacts what you read about Russia and China in the news.  And when these stories end up in the news, you’re not unlikely to find the Russian and Chinese governments active in sponsoring paid, pro-government commentators.  Page 4 of a Freedom House report entitled “Freedom on the Net 2013” details the situation.

Already evident in a number of countries assessed in the previous edition of Freedom of the Net, the phenomenon of paid progovernment commentators has spread in the past two years, appearing in 22 of the 60 countries examined in this study. The purpose of these commentators—covertly hired by government officials, often by using public funds—is to manipulate online discussions by trying to smear the reputation of government opponents, spread propaganda, and defend government policies when the discourse becomes critical. China, Bahrain, and Russia have been at the forefront of this practice for several years, but countries like Malaysia, Belarus, and Ecuador are increasingly using the same tactics, particularly surrounding politically sensitive events such as elections or major street protests.

Oh how I miss those halycion days of poorly-written e-mails from beleaguered Nigerian princes and stranded Ghanaian barristers promising enormous sums of money if only I would help them out of a minor jam.  Anyway, taken together, all of this shows just how bad an idea it would be to give these two governments a shot at any voice in a platform like the internet that retains value only in so far as it remains free.

In our American democracy, which is itself a kind of multistakeholder process, corporations are the most powerful players, and surprisingly enough, they dominate the political process.  In a multinational world, states are the most powerful players, and where they are part of a process, they will control that process.  Keeping America at the head of the addressing system may not make much difference, but a multistakeholder body composed of “corporations, states, advocacy groups, and other potential members” will always be dominated by states in so far as those states want to dominate it.  Powerful states, even with divergent interests, will often cooperate to flout the wishes of small states, non-governmental organizations, and humanitarian groups.  The Ottawa Treaty, otherwise known as the Mine Ban Treaty, has been signed by everyone except the countries who use landmines. We’re on that short list, and while not without good reason, we’re still there.

With America at the head of the table today, it has little room to take adverse action.  But in a multistakeholder process, where blame can be spread more thinly, it is not hard to imagine even our own government, with its extensive domestic surveillance program, eventually managing to find common cause with Russian officials looking to spy more easily on Chechen separatists, or Chinese officials looking to  crush more thoroughly separatists in Xinjiang.

The Forbes article about Russia not stealing the internet at the top of this piece makes the point that “Nothing mobilizes support among the world’s governments for a stronger ITU role in internet governance or a more nationalistic approach than the sight of the US Congress beating its chest about American exceptionalism and its unilateral right to supervise global internet infrastructure.” Maybe so. Perhaps even understandably so.  But who else is going to do it right – the other democracies?  Not bloody likely – not at all.  At least for now, our government remains exceptional in that it is too busy spying on us to do much censorship – except of course when someone’s intellectual property rights are at stake, which apparently warrants an international police action.

As for American exceptionalism itself, the Atlantic wrote a piece in 2012 detailing the origins of the phrase my argument probably boils down to.  Bringing everything back home, it was, ironically enough, probably first coined by Russia’s last authentic strongman.

In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn’t interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this “heresy of American exceptionalism.” And just like that, this expression was born.

In dealing with today’s Russian leadership, we need to remember that for all its shortcomings – CIA blacksites, wars waged on false pretenses, and an out-of-control program of domestic surveillance – America remains in important ways an exceptional country. National ideologies still exist, and still matter.  The internet in America still remains, by and large, free.  And for its own sake, America should do what it can to support a free internet everywhere.  If that means holding onto the loose reins it currently has so as to prevent any kind of process different from the one we have today from ever developing, then we ought not fix what isn’t broken.


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