A controversial new report on how businesses and governments can control the flow of information on the Web raises important questions for the modern Internet society.

The Google logo at the former Google China headquarters in Beijing. Photo: AP

Citing security concerns created by the digital revolution, many governments have been establishing relatively closed national Web domains and limiting the presence of giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter in their domestic Internet markets.

In a bid to penetrate these markets, Internet companies are forced to abandon the principles of free speech and accessibility of information. This raises an interesting question: How can the competing interests of information openness and commercial gain be reconciled while ensuring transparency and accountability of Internet business?

“The New Gatekeepers”

Bill Ristow’s report for the Center for International Media Assistance, “The New Gatekeepers: Controlling Information in the Internet Age,” is dedicated to examining the role of Internet companies in managing the modern information society. On one hand, governments have been playing an increasingly prominent role; on the other hand, other, non-governmental actors such as multinational businesses, civil society organizations, expert communities and individual Internet users, have seen their power increase.

According to Ristow, the main resource of these Internet companies is their ability to act as gatekeepers, controlling the information available to Internet users. Ristow analyzes the international political implications of Internet business activity from the standpoint of protecting free speech and human rights on a global scale.

Within the report, examples of the most influential Internet companies include Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Microsoft, all based in the United States. The author notes that there are influential national companies in other countries, too, such as the Chinese search engine Baidu or the Russian social networking site VKontakte, but they have less impact than the American ones. It is the big Internet companies, with numbers of users running into the billions, which are setting the direction for how the Web is developed and used.

These companies determine the way users search for and organize information and communicate. They also form an environment for Internet users to operate and manage their preferences, and can control what is seen and what is not. A widely publicized example was Google’s decision to block access to the “Innocence of Muslims” video from its YouTube subsidiary in several countries.

The buzz surrounding the movie, "Inmocence of Muslims," and rumors of a YouTube ban in Russia have fueled further speculation amongst Internet users. Source: ITAR-TASS

Free speech and censorship on the Internet

According to Ristow, the activities of Internet companies are politically relevant when they do business in countries that, for security reasons, strive to assert their “cyber sovereignty” by establishing relatively closed national Web domains and limiting their citizens’ access to data services provided by Western search engines.

The author singles out the information strategy of Beijing, which strictly controls the flow of information, thereby creating a number of problems for Internet businesses. The Chinese government requests that Internet companies disclose users’ personal data and restrict access to certain politically sensitive information.

Ristow notes that China was a natural commercial target for U.S.-based tech companies needing to expand their markets. While these companies aggressively entered the market, China was also developing its own local search and social media companies, governed by Chinese regulations and capable of helping the authorities control Internet users.

The number of countries suppressing their national Internet domains has been on the rise. Meanwhile, according to Ristow, some regimes are reportedly becoming more sophisticated in their approach to managing the Internet. Rather than simply trying to block offending sites altogether, governments may allow some form of controlled access – and then use it as a way of monitoring citizens’ behavior.

The author is concerned about the deterioration in both human rights protection on the Web and in global information openness, and suggests that businesses should be more actively involved in the Global Network Initiative to prevent Internet censorship. The group’s goal is to protect human rights in a digital society. Ristow recommends developing a code for Internet companies to ensure accountability and transparency of their decisions regarding posting or taking down certain information and protecting users’ privacy.

China's President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Microsoft founder Bill Gates before their meeting during the annual Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) conference in Boao town, Hainan province April 8, 2013. Photo: Reuters

Governments and businesses in the global information space

Ristow’s findings corroborate the ideas of the respected American political scientist Joseph S. Nye on power diffusion in the global information age. According to Nye, power is diffused in a digital society as governments are forced to share it with non-government players, such as Internet companies. Big Internet businesses have an important role to play in shaping the modern information society.

Meanwhile, as Ristow correctly points out, Internet companies do not like to be compared to “gatekeepers” of the print media era. The image and brands of Internet industry companies are based on the ideas of openness and access to information, as well as on searching for innovative approaches and new avenues for development of society. Their profits depend on the appeal of their image, so Internet companies prefer not to advertise their ties to governments, especially the implications of controversial decisions they make under government pressure.

The author skips the issues of inter-government power interaction in the information sphere. Despite the growing role of Internet companies, governments remain the key players in the global information space. Internet companies often act as proxies for their governments on foreign policy, something that is especially true of the United States. In this regard, the author’s conclusions appear somewhat one-sided.

Indeed, Internet companies’ activities contribute greatly to openness and protection of human rights on a global scale, even considering the controversial consequences of many of their decisions. Yet, concerns expressed by certain governments that American Internet companies are a tool for U.S. “soft power” when they assist in promoting the country’s interests to the detriment of other countries’ security certainly appear justified.

At this point, managing user-accessible information has become a highly politicized topic – something Ristow fails to note. In the light of the Arab Spring, aka the “Twitter Revolution” or “Facebook Revolution,” more and more governments tend to view Internet businesses as a threat to national security.

In March 2013, Twitter has agreed to cooperate with the Russian authorities and has limited access to materials that contain unlawful content for Russian users. Photo: AP

Politicizing the activities of the “new gatekeepers’” also has economic implications, another topic that Bill Ristow fails to mention. American Internet businesses are generating huge profits worldwide, incomparable to the earnings of companies based elsewhere. By shutting down or restricting access to American social networks and search engines, governments are creating competitive advantages for their local companies operating on the Web.

Russia’s role in the development of the Internet

The Internet has been changing the global political landscape and the environment where governments and non-government actors operate. In his 1999 book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” the American journalist and political scientist Thomas L. Friedman described the revolutionary consequences of information technology development from a global political prospective, noting the increasingly close mutual dependence between different countries and the subsiding importance of the geographical factor.

More than a decade ago, the modern Internet business giants described by Ristow did not exist yet. Today, the trends identified by Friedman are morphing as a result of actions by governments and Internet companies. New fault lines have appeared on the Web and national domains have emerged as sometimes isolated nodes in a global network. It appears extremely important to account for the new directions in the Web’s development and to offer recommendations as to how to preserve the continuity of the global network and universal access to information.

That is precisely what Bill Ristow has tried to achieve. Ristow calls for expansion of participation by business in the Global Network Initiative, which aims at increasing accountability of Internet companies and pools the efforts of governments, businesses, NGOs, and the expert community. Indeed, such models of cooperation can meet the demands of the rapidly developing Web. At the same time, the Global Network Initiative is a U.S.-based NGO.

In order to increase the legitimacy and scope of this initiative, it would be more expedient to organize such activities under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union, the UN “family” member responsible for telecommunications.

So what role can Russia play in the development of the modern Internet?

It’s important to point out that Russia is not interested in restricting the presence of the largest Internet players in the Russian market. In order to develop this segment of the economy, Russia understands it is important to learn from others’ experience and to maintain cooperation between Russian companies and Western ones. Recognizing the importance of economic development, it is nonetheless necessary to strike a balance between development and information security.

The review is abridged from the original version which first appeared in Russian on the website of Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).