A major independent commission headed by the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, was launched on Wednesday to investigate the future of the internet in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations.
The two-year inquiry, announced at the World Economic Forum at Davos, will be wide-ranging but focus primarily on state censorship of the internet as well as the issues of privacy and surveillance raised by the Snowden leaks about America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ spy agencies.
The investigation, which will be conducted by a 25-member panel of politicians, academics, former intelligence officials and others from around the world, is an acknowledgement of the concerns about freedom raised by the debate.
Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said: “The rapid evolution of the net has been made possible by the open and flexible model by which it has evolved and been governed. But increasingly this is coming under attack.
“And this is happening as issues of net freedom, net security and net surveillance are increasingly debated. Net freedom is as fundamental as freedom of information and freedom of speech in our societies.”
The Obama administration on Friday announced the initial findings of a White House-organised review of the NSA. There are also inquiries by the US Congress and by the European parliament, but this is the first major independent one.
The inquiry has been set up by Britain’s foreign affairs thinktank Chatham House and by the Center for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI), which is partly funded by the Canadian government.
In a joint statement, Chatham House and the CIGI said the current internet regime was under threat. “This threat to a free, open and universal internet comes from two principal sources. First, a number of authoritarian states are waging a campaign to exert greater state control over critical internet resources.”
The statement does not name the countries but it is aimed mainly at China and Iran, both of whom are censoring the internet.
The other big issue, according to Chatham House and the CIGI, is the revelations from Snowden.
“Second, revelations about the nature and extent of online surveillance have led to a loss of trust.”
Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, said: “The issue of internet governance is set to become one of the most pressing global policy issues of our time.”
The intention of the inquiry is to hold public consultations around the world. About half a dozen meetings are planned, at a cost of about £150,000 each.
Among those on the panel are: Joseph Nye, former dean of the Kennedy school of governance at Harvard; Sir David Omand, former head ofGCHQ; Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the US homeland security department and co-author of the Patriot Act that expanded NSAsurveillance powers; the MEP Marietje Schaake, who has been a leading advocate of internet freedom; Latha Reddy, former deputy national security adviser of India; and Patricia Lewis, research director in the international security department at Chatham House, who said: “Internet governance is too important to be left just to governments.”
Asked about the lack of debate in the UK so far compared with the US and elsewhere in Europe and around the world, Lewis said: “People in Britain are more concerned than we realise. They have clearly agreed at some level to exchange data for goods and services but they did not agree for that data to be given to the government and security services.
“This is a debate we sorely need.”
Gordon Smith, who is to be deputy chair of the commission, said: “For many people, internet governance sounds technical and esoteric but the reality is that the issues are ‘high politics’ and of consequence to all users of the internet, present and future.”