Governance – who makes the policies and rules (but NOT the technology) on how the Internet runs – is one of the “invisible infrastructure” activities that just happen and keeps the Internet from failing. With the explosive growth of the Web and its importance to the world economy (coupled with the fact that the Internet is global and doesn’t recognize national borders), the last decade has seen governments and policy makers start to look more closely at who actually makes the rules that run the Internet and wonder if perhaps there isn’t a better way. Things like taxation, censorship, privacy, intellectual property, libel, economic stability, and financial dealings are all aspects of Internet governance the world is coming to recognize. And governments are loathe to grant U.S. based Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) (such as ICANN and ISOC and IETF) the right to make the fundamental rules that impact these sovereign rights.
Part of the reason for this is the importance of the Internet to the world’s economic well-being. The global (and globalized) economy depends in large part on the instantaneous communications afforded by the Internet, which are now reaching ever-broader audiences.
However, the major impact of the Internet is on governance of nations – and not just of the individuals of the Internet. The “Arab Spring” movement showed the power of the Internet to galvanize public reaction. This can be a worrisome thing to a government trying to maintain economic or political stability. Wikileaks also illustrated the power of the Internet to disseminate governmentally unfavorable information that impacted governmental foreign policy, and the use of malware (e.g. Stuxnet) has become a tool for both industrial and military espionage and sabotage.
But in the international geopolitical arena, governance has expanded to mean more: It also means that all nations have an equal say and stake in the creation of the rules and deployment of the Internet. Note here that the term is “nations” – not individuals – because how the Internet is governed can have a tremendous impact on a nation’s ability to pursue a national growth and governance strategy.
One of the countries most concerned about this area is China. It was noted that the non-regulated nature of the Internet, and what could be viewed as favoritism to the developed countries, poses a long term and large problem for developing countries. On September 18, 2012, the Chinese government hosted an “emerging nations Internet roundtable,” where issues of Internet governance, content management, and cyber security were discussed. The governments of Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa all participated, and together looked at Internet governance so that the needs of developing nations are taken into consideration.
Following the meeting, a statement was released that said that participating governments would continue to meet on a regular basis and that consensus has been reached on the following four major topics:
1. Internet governance must become a governmental mandate, and the impact of social networks on society (good, bad, and otherwise) is of particular concern.
2. Content filtering needs increased regulation and legislation to both protect and promote the interests of developing and emerging nations.
3. The whole area of cyber-security needs increased transnational cooperation and coordination – but this must be balanced with the economic needs of emerging states.
4. Emerging and developing nations offer the greatest opportunity for Internet growth, and these nations must take responsibility for managing this growth.
This conference clearly delimits the debate between those who seek an unfettered (open and based in information technology) Internet and those who would like a more regulated (in the style of the regulated telecommunications industry) model.
The issue of who controls a tremendously powerful communications force is, of course, a matter of high interest to nearly everyone. But the essential issue is that this policy and governance issue is being fought in the standards arena – that is, who has the right and duty to make the rules about the standards that will drive the next generation of innovation in the massively connected world. Currently, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is proposing to assume an increased role in making rules for the Internet, with support from many of the G-30 nations. And ISOC, the IETF, W3C, and the IEEE are responding with the Open Stand (http://open-stand.org) initiative. Europe is moving to recognize consortia specifications – and the national standards bodies (with implicit support of their governments) are trying to slow and limit this change. And we will see this same type of standards-based activity in policy decisions on privacy, security, accessibility, and others. As the world becomes more and more highly interconnected, the need for and control of who creates and who mandates standards – their creation, implementation, testing, and IPR status – will become major issues in national and international policy. And this is the lesson that is being learned from the internet governance discussions.
(1)Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN); Internet Society (ISOC); Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
(2) The ITU is a specialized U.N. Treaty Organization responsible for Information and Communications technology. It creates standards to regulate telecommunications.