It appears that the proposal by India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) to bring the wonders of United Nations-centered governmental oversight to the Internet did not fare so well when subjected to public discussion at the Nairobi Internet Governance Forum. But even the IBSA critics seemed to be curiously detached from the inherent incompatibility between national sovereignty and a global Internet.
Just as the IGF met in Kenya, the world's governments were showing how hopeless intergovernmental institutions are when it comes to protecting freedom, law and order. I am referring to the attempt by the United Nations to impose sanctions on Syria.
IBSA advocates who call for strong governmental presence in Internet governance like to warn us of the terrible abuses of multinational “monopoly” corporations. Aside from the fact that even the most dominant of these corporations, Google, does not have any thing near to a monopoly of search, much less of online advertising, the harms and risks Google's actions pose pale in comparison to what is happening in Syria. The Syrian state poses a very clear and obvious instance of abuse and chaos. The Syrian government is killing its own people as they attempt to join the Arab Spring and challenge the Assad dictatorship. Whether you are pro-West or not, whether you are Muslim, Christian, Hindu or atheist, socialist or free marketeer, it's clear that Syria needs attention.
So it is fair to ask, how well have intergovernmental institutions responded to this problem? We all know the answer. Governments were paralyzed. They were unable to agree. And perhaps surprisingly, our friends in IBSA decided to stand with the Assad regime and resist any outside interference by the UN. Writing in Al Arabiya news, Raghida Dergham asks “Why did the BRICs stand like a solid separation wall to protect the regime in Syria, while up to three thousand civilians have fallen victim to repression and killing?” And why did IBSA countries support Russia and China? She suggests an answer: what brings together the IBSA countries, “is their ambition of obtaining a permanent seat at the Security Council.”
What matters to states, you see, is not justice or peace but their own power and the national interests of their own ruling elites. It's true of the U.S., of France, of China and Russia – and it's true of IBSA. In a world with 180 or so national sovereigns, it's ridiculous beyond belief to see sovereignty-based international institutions as an appropriate venue for finding constructive and cooperative solutions to the problems of Internet governance. If you didn't believe that before, just ask yourself: if governments can't agree on how to respond to mayhem and killing in Syria, how good do you think that kind of an environment will be at addressing the complex technical and economic issues of the Internet?