Internet governance: Are we discussing the right things?

September 1, 2014

We need to distinguish between technical and regulatory debates in Internet governance discussions. Failure to do so will make it harder to find solutions to either.

Istanbul provides the exotic backdrop for a major UN conference on the governance of the Internet on September 2-5.  The annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) sets the scene for discussions between experts from civil society, governments, industry, and the technical community.  This IGF will likely attract unprecedented attention given the heated global discussions on issues such as government surveillance, data privacy, net neutrality, human rights, free speech, and fears of a fragmented Internet.

While all of these topics certainly are important and Internet-related, it may be beneficial to distinguish them from the core discussion about Internet governance.  Cultural sensitivities, market realities, and governmental regimes vary wildly, hence today’s patchwork of national and regional laws on data privacy, cyber security, and net neutrality.

Key Internet governance issues on the other hand focus on the network’s physical infrastructure, unique identifiers and standards (among others).  These highly technical issues are hugely important and require a system for international coordination.  Several multi-stakeholder organizations run the technical part of the Internet.  Most of these organizations have evolved independently of government and bring together key stakeholders such as engineers, civil society, business, government, academics, etc.  The unexpected success of the Internet in terms of its societal and economic benefits can in large parts be explained by today’s flexible governance structure of multi-stakeholder organizations.

As the Internet matures and its number of users increases, so do the expectations of the processes and institutions servicing it.  A broad consensus has emerged on the need to reform the multi-stakeholder system to increase its transparency, openness, and participation while avoiding capture by any special interests.  At the same time we must not compromise on the network’s overall security, stability and performance.

For historic reasons, the U.S. Government has held a contractual relationship with some of the key organizations that run the “Internet’s address book.”  The U.S. Government’s announcement in March 2014 to transition its oversight over these Internet domain name functions was overdue and welcomed by the Internet community.  An April 2014 global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance advanced this process further by establishing principles for the Internet and a roadmap to improve the existing system.  Challenges are many, but the path to reform has become clearer.  The risk remains however, that we, the Internet community, do not achieve a reformed and improved system that certain governments’ push for a more top-down style of governance at the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) important Plenipotentiary Conference in October and November 2014.  While the ITU plays an important role in spectrum management, development, and standard setting, it would clearly be a false alternative to today’s system which continues to work so well.

The IGF will be the place to be for all types of stakeholders with an interest in the Internet.  Internet aficionados will find delight in discussing core technical Internet governance issues while others will find interest in discussions on topics such as cyber security, net neutrality, and data privacy.  However, if we do not distinguish between these two categories, we risk making it harder to find effective solutions to either one of them.  Any attempt to ‘re-engineer’ an inherently open technology like the Internet risks undermining its ability to deliver social and economic benefits.

As we address either two groups of questions we should avoid getting stuck in the more philosophical discussions about “who controls the Internet” and “who spies-on-who.”  Else, we risk overlooking other important questions.  For instance, how do we keep the Internet open and interconnected and avoid fragmentation?  And how do we ensure connectivity for the other half of the world’s population so they too can reap all the fantastic economic, political, and societal benefits which Internet offers?


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