Michael Chertoff spends a lot of time these days thinking about who owns the Internet and who makes the rules that govern the access and security of the personal and financial information that flows across it.
Should each nation set its own rules establishing ownership and sovereignty over data that flows within its borders? Should the Internet remain free of all regulation? And how much control devolves to individuals?
In Toronto for the Canadian Telecom Conference, the former secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush is giving a keynote speech Monday titled "One Internet or Thousands: Preserving the World Wide Web in a Diverse Globe." It comes amid a pitched battle in Washington over the legality and political viability of many of the surveillance powers he used while performing his duties.
"You can't have ungoverned space," Mr. Chertoff says. "You need to find a way to respect the global character of the Internet and the fact that it operates transnationally but also not allow it to become a means of subverting reasonable national policies."
But what's reasonable in one country may not be in another, and that central conflict is at the heart of the issues Mr. Chertoff is debating as part of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, which was formed in January, 2014, as a partnership between two think tanks: the Centre for International Governance Innovation based in Waterloo, Ont., and the Britain-based Chatham House.
"I was at a meeting last week and the representatives from a Chinese think tank were being very emphatic that national sovereignty has to trump everything else. It gets harder when you get into issues that are more political," he says. "For example: free speech. Some countries want to regulate it, obviously in U.S. and Canada we generally protect free speech."
What Mr. Chertoff fears is that governments and companies will respond to a fragmentation of national Internets by building data centres which might not be ideal from an engineering and infrastructure perspective, but which are "cherry picked" for the friendliest legal authority. The solution, he hopes, would be a series of treaties organizing broad agreements on these areas where competing national interests may collide.
"The only way to do that is to get maybe not every country, but at least many of the significant countries to agree on a set of rules and principles."
He also believes that fragmentation supports the creation of so-called Dark Webs, where black markets like those created by Ross Ulbricht are allowed to flourish.
Mr. Ulbricht was sentenced Friday in a Manhattan federal court to life in prison without the possibility of parole on five charges related to the creation of Silk Road – the underground online site the 31-year-old Texas man created in 2011 – which became a fertile marketplace for drugs and stolen or faked identification records.
"What he was trying to do was eliminate the transaction costs and the risks of ordering for criminal activity in real life … where you are dealing with undercover agents and surveillance and things of that sort," Mr. Chertoff says. "In this case he was unsuccessful, but there's no question that it's more challenging [for law enforcement]."
Mr. Chertoff co-wrote a paper for the Internet governance commission in February that advocated a much more robust program of monitoring the parts of the Internet that are not indexed by search engines and require some knowledge of secure network tools to access.
"People were talking about Internet governance, but they were only talking about the Internet that was visible to them," he says. "You can't have a legal black hole. There's got to be investment in the effort to determine what's actually going on and see if it's being used as a vehicle for illicit or even terrorist activity."