By NANCY SCOLA
June 02, 2015
While ICANN is often the poster-child for what’s gone wrong with the Internet—and it’s difficult to find anyone, even within its own ranks, who thinks ICANN is perfect—ICANN’s job is fairly narrow: It is more or less the switchboard operator of the Internet. It doesn’t tackle cybersecurity, or legal disputes on Facebook, or concerns over how Google deals with privacy. The U.S. position is to keep aiming to reform ICANN while handling those other matters on a case-by-case basis.
But that approach can be complex and few outside the U.S. have the wherewithal to navigate it. “To some degree,” admits Sepulveda, “it’s unsatisfying to a regulator or public official in the developing world to say, ‘You have a problem with commercial privacy, you should go to the U.N. Human Rights Commission or UNESCO to talk to people about that,’ because you’re not going to get an immediate solution.”
Hovering over that discussion is the specter of Edward Snowden. How often do the revelations of digital surveillance by the National Security Agency come up in the course of his work? “All the time,” says Sepulveda.
Brazil’s Rouseff was particularly angered by the seeming revelation that the NSA and other intelligence officials in the United States were tapping the Internet, perhaps in cahoots with U.S.-based tech companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook. Before the U.N. General Assembly in the fall of 2013, she suggested that perhaps the Internet needed a “civilian multilateral framework”—diplo-speak for the notion that the U.S. had abused its exceptional role, and other world powers might need to step in as a counterbalance.
To some in the U.S. government, the spirited debate here over how far digital surveillance has gone serves to justify the U.S.’s prime place as the Internet’s apparatus. “Russia’s not having that discussion,” says Painter, State’s cyber coordinator. “Others are not having that discussion.” Some countries, particularly in Europe, have reacted to the NSA revelations by building their own national email systems, as in the case with Germany, or by creating a local “cloud” for storing digital data, as in France. A 40-page report from the Open Technology Institute warns that “without greater nuance, other governments could use the proposals to justify their own actions, including those that do not protect, but violate, human rights.”
Sepulveda has been praised for steering deftly through those murky waters. Some see that as a marked change for the U.S. Google, for its part, has reacted to the U.N. push with a “Take Action” campaign, with the slogan, “the Internet was designed to be free and open. But not everyone wants it to stay that way.” Some outside the U.S. heard Google’s message as screechy or preachy, but pre-Sepulveda, it fit the black-or-white tone the U.S. had often taken. “It was a fight between good and evil,” says one tech-focused foreign diplomat who has often worked beside Sepulveda, “which might or might not be true, but isn’t good on the diplomatic scene.” (The diplomat asked to remain nameless because, well, diplomacy.) Sepulveda, says the diplomat, manages to be firm but tactful at once.
Sepulveda has re-engineered the messaging to be a positive statement of U.S. values, and he has championed, to some receptive ears, the idea that citizens of poorer nations can gain a sort of power their countries lack in old-school government-to-government relations. To grow individual participation around the world, the State Department has put more than a $100 million in the last few years into such programs as finding ways around China’s Great Firewall or training foreign journalists on staying safe online.
But with two billion people living on less than two dollars a day, how are they going to get online? U.S. Agency for International Development has taken the lead with its Global Broadband and Innovations Program to those in the developing world connect. State Department officials also point to the work being done by the private sector to expand access, including Google’s broadband-by-balloon project called Loon and Facebook’s nascent bid to deliver digital data through drones. U.S. officials are also nudging other countries to adopt the “universal service fund” where fees on, say, some customers’ telephone lines are used to pay for Internet access for those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. In mid-December, President Obama also loosened restrictions on I.T. trade with Cuba. And in late March, Sepulveda led a U.S. delegation to Havana focused on telecommunications issues, including the steps necessary to increase Cubans’ Internet access. But, says Sepulveda, “it’s not like there’s a Best Buy, and you can just buy whatever phone you want” in Havana. The Castro government is amenable to opening up the market, says Sepulveda, but making that real for Cubans “is going to be an interesting conversation.”
That’s a conversation that U.S. tech companies are eager to have, which highlights one of the strengths of Sepulveda’s portfolio. “It’s obviously the easiest for us when our national interests align with those of companies that reside in the United States,” he says.
Sepulveda and others like him still have some convincing to do back in the U.S., where, in March, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that it would begin the process of giving up a Clinton-era contract that gives that agency oversight over ICANN’s role in handing out and keeping tabs on the online world’s Internet protocol addresses. Turning over that function to the rest of the world has been in the works for decades, and supporters frame it as a bit of administrative housekeeping left over from the Internet’s early days.
But that move to transfer power has riled up some, especially Republicans in Congress who have tried, but thus far failed, to figure out how to slow or defund it.
Texas Senator and Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has, for example, rallied against the transition, arguing in an op-ed in November that “the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping should not dictate what can be read, written, distributed, bought and sold on the Internet.” The current House Republican budget attempts to defund the transition.
The counterargument? That letting go of this function strengthens the U.S.’s position that the Internet should be ruled by its users, not governments. Danielle Kehl, senior policy analyst at the Open Technology Institute, calls it “hugely strategically useful to the U.S.’s long-term interests” to finally pass that job over to someone else. By giving up that last measure of official control, the U.S. can prove that it’s not pulling all the strings. This development could be useful as Sepulveda and others argue that the Russias and Chinas of the world shouldn’t be allowed direct access to the strings, either.
That, really, is the tension at the core of this debate: keeping too tight an American grip on the Internet isn’t politically palatable to much of the international community, but letting go completely also includes some risk.
“The Internet is the United States’ gift to the world,” says Sepulveda.
But some gifts are easier to give away than others.
Daniel Sepulveda just might be the closest thing the United States has to an “Ambassador to the Internet.” And the 42-year-old is in the middle of a tricky battle.
Some countries, including behemoths China and Russia, as well as smaller countries with few resources, are starting to argue that the loose way the Internet is run leans too heavily in the U.S.’s favor. Their solution: Shift regulation of the Internet to the world stage, perhaps to the United Nations, where they might have more control.
That runs counter to the official position of the Obama administration. And that’s where Sepulveda comes in and what keeps the deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy airborne much of the time, flying to Dubai, Costa Rica, Cuba or South Korea as the administration’s pitch man.
The Internet’s evolution should be decided “organically, by participants in the network,” Sepulveda argues, “as opposed to by governments or intermediaries.”
He’s willing to acknowledge that the current, somewhat ad hoc system of regulation—where geeks, not governments, get to vote—needs reforming. But it mostly works, as it allows for what Sepulveda calls “as little friction as possible” as information and ideas move around the world. Binding the future of the Internet to the U.N. threatens to upset a way of doing things that has produced, in the Internet, a global force unlike the world has ever seen.
The complicated part, though, is that Sepulveda and his colleagues have to sell that government-hands-off-the-Internet policy while also being high-ranking appointees of a government which has been accused of using the Internet to allegedly spy on its own citizens, as well as on world leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and Brazil’s Dilma Rouseff.
Asked whether the U.S. should have any sort of exceptional role when it comes to the Internet, Sepulveda answers quickly. “Uh, yes,” he says, and it’s only his diplomatic training, perhaps, that keeps him from adding, “Duh.”
The Internet “came out of the United States. Our companies, our firms have led in both its deployment and use throughout the world,” he says. It’s only natural that, a few decades later, within the borders of the U.S. exists a tremendous concentration of people who know what makes the Internet tick. That, Sepulveda insists, “does not mean that it’s designed that way.”
In other words, he says, the game isn’t rigged. Americans are just really good at it. If only he can convince Vladimir Putin to see it that way.
Sepulveda had a chance to make this pitch last October at an 18-day meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a technical body of the U.N. that has, since 1865, made sure that the world can talk amongst itself. He spent nearly three weeks in a massive glass conference center in the South Korean city of Busan coaching the 100-plus U.S. squad on how to spin dozens of other nations that the Internet works well as it is.
Not an easy task. In some places, governments have already taxed the cost of going online, censored social networks, or otherwise regulated the Internet. In many cases, citizens protested. Hungarians, for example, took to the streets of Budapest in October over Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s plan for an online access fee; Orban relented.
“It’s a pushback against the desire of incumbent power to reassert that power through the Internet,” says Sepulveda. “You’re seeing it throughout Latin America, and you’re seeing it in parts of Africa.”
Spreading the U.S.’s views is a team effort, one that includes Catherine Novelli, the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment; Scott Busby, Deputy Assistant Secretary and “Internet freedom” point person; and Christopher Painter, State’s Coordinator for Cyber Issues. But it often falls to Sepulveda to persuade other governments’ tech ministers to leave the Internet to what Painter brands “The Internet wise guys”—the thousands of network engineers, civil society leaders, tech industry representatives and power users who have been debating the future of the Internet as long as it has existed, many of whom live in the United States.
In Busan, Sepulveda said that his delegation’s mission was to “make sure people remain free to build on those networks: free from interference, free from censorship, free from centralized control.”
But that can often be easier said than done. “The U.S. has a real history of having those kinds of private-public partnerships,” Painter says. “A lot of countries, particularly developing countries, don’t have that history and tradition.”
In the middle of the debate sits Sepulveda, an Emory-educated native of central Florida, the child of Chilean immigrants, and a techno-optimist with a long Washington résumé. He’s worked for Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer, John Kerry and Barack Obama. He’s put in time at the Labor Department and as an assistant U.S. trade representative. He joined the State Department in 2013, and was given a mandate to fight those who hunger for “a fragmented Internet that divides us rather than unites us, that minimizes the voice of people and maximizes their ability to cloud the truth,” as then Secretary of State Kerry said in a video-streamed speech to the Freedom Online Coalition Conference in Estonia last year.
And so, what happened in South Korea?
The official read-outs from the three-week session are maddeningly opaque. But what is certain is that the gathering never held a vote to expand the UN’s purview to include governance of the Internet. “We were very successful in making it clear that that’s just not going to happen,” says Sepulveda in late January, from a fourth floor meeting room in the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters.
Maintaining the status quo on regulation may have been a victory, but it’s not the ultimate goal. Sepulveda would like to bring “the most revolutionary communications network that has ever existed” to every child and every community in the world. A connected society that includes Bangalore and Belgrade and Brasília is more productive and with greater opportunity, including for women, the thinking goes, and it’s good for the U.S. if free speech and the free flow of information flourish. “This isn’t a zero-sum game,” Sepulveda says. “Every additional person added to the network adds value to the network.”
Beyond that, “a challenge that we’re trying to embrace,” says Sepulveda, “is to say, ‘You, the developing world, should not just be consumers of Internet services, and the Internet itself, but producers in that marketplace.’”
And what if the developing world makes choices for the Internet that aren’t in U.S. interests?
“Maybe not every decision is going to be a decision we’re going to like,” Sepulveda says. “That’s, you know, life.”
At the moment, sitting at the center of the Internet governance question is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. The Los Angeles-based non-profit was created in the late ’90s, part of the Clinton administration’s push to make the Internet, then wild and woolly, safe for commerce. (Until that point, handling the naming and numbering of websites was the side project of a southern California computer science professor named Jon Postel.) ICANN, with an annual budget of $170 million, has been criticized as opaque, money-hungry, and overrun with Americans. Governments are invited to participate, but only as advisors.
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