The Brewing Internet Governance Storm

There is a brewing Internet Governance storm. At stake – the way the net is operated and controlled.

The Internet has been growing at 115% per year, more than doubling annually, for thirty years. Today, over two billion people are connected to the Internet. The openness of the Internet has been the main catalyst for many social and economic advances. It has enabled a level of human communication and interconnection unprecedented in human history, as demonstrated by the staggering global popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It has also spurred new levels of innovation, fueling significant economic activity.The McKinsey Global Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, estimates that the Internet has generated as much as 10% of GDP growth in developed countries over the past fifteen years.

The impressive growth of the Internet has not been without challenges, however. The structures necessary to oversee such a dynamic creature as the Internet have to adapt continually to a shifting set of global priorities and pressures. Further, Internet-enabled economic benefits, and the power and influence that goes with them, are often not equitably channeled to developing nations.

Managing Chaos – the Multi-stakeholder Approach

Who is responsible for addressing equity and growth of the Internet? Who is to be charged with creating and governing a more even playing field? The answers are complicated.

No single organization or country is responsible for governing the Internet. Instead, the Internet is managed by a mélange of organizations, representing a variety of interests and responsibilities. As the scale and complexity of the Internet increase exponentially, the supporting organizations also evolve and expand to keep up. New entities are also formed with more specific responsibilities, to address new or more specific challenges.

Despite the global significance of their function, the organizations currently charged with administering Internet entities are largely unheralded and unknown. Only a miniscule percentage of billions of people who depend on the Internet have ever heard of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a U.S.-based nonprofit responsible for coordinating the global domain-name system; the regional Internet registries that coordinate IP addresses, such as the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC) and American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN); the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the central coordinator for the development and promotion of Internet standards and protocols; or the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which develops global technical standards so that devices and software all around the world can interoperate. The list of three- and four-letter acronymed groups gets even more obscure when one adds the many organizations and stakeholder groups that coordinate or support Internet-related resources, standards, and policy.

It is no surprise that many onlookers view this multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance as chaotic and inefficient. Some argue that the Internet is simply too important globally to be left to such a loose form of governance. But the history, the facts, and the fruits of an open Internet argue otherwise.

The seemingly loose, decentralized, multi-stakeholder governance has worked amazingly well in managing the exponential growth of the Internet. Proponents of this approach believe is succeeds because the system is so open and decentralized that anyone anywhere on the planet can invent new applications, develop content, or create hardware or other standard-based technology and connect it with the global network. This is all possible without the need to obtain permission or secure a license from any government or corporation. This is the beauty and power of the Internet. It is also the reason the Internet continues to see explosive growth and innovation in the midst of a global economic downturn.

Internet Governance Under Threat

Yet all is not well. The stakes are high in the growing global debate about who should be in charge of the Internet. For years China, India, Russia, and many developing countries have protested that the multi-stakeholder institutions are unfairly dominated by Americans and Western Europeans. Developing countries, often under- or unrepresented at international gatherings, voice real concerns that richer, developed nations manipulate outcomes to further their own commercial and geopolitical advantage.

Against this backdrop, a new battle in the war for control of the Internet has begun. At its center is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a U.N. organization covering 193 member countries. The ITU, whose remit thus far has been limited to global telephone systems, is currently conducting a review of the international agreements governing telecommunications. The body is proposing to expand its regulatory authority to the Internet at the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications scheduled for December 2012 in Dubai.

Top Down vs. Bottom Up

The ITU is a model example of an international bureaucracy whose rigid, top-down approach to decision making could hardly be more antithetical to the Internet’s dynamic, bottom-up approach to governance. ITU negotiations are held largely among governments, with very limited access for civil society or other stakeholders.

Because the ITU is a U.N. treaty-based organization, if its proposals are accepted at the Dubai conference member countries could be bound to Internet usage terms that are essentially dictated by special interests and controlled by nation-states — not by the mix of businesses, educational and research institutions, governments, and nongovernmental organizations that has guided the Internet’s evolution so far.

But there is more to this brewing storm than decision-making models and stakeholder participation. Control over Internet governance has highly commercial implications. Several telecoms companies have voiced dissatisfaction over the economic model underpinning the Internet. They express frustration at bearing the costs of laying the physical infrastructure while being left out of the fortunes being reaped by companies such as Google, Skype, and Facebook.

In Dubai, ITU delegates will be debating whether telecom network operators should be allowed to prioritize traffic and charge different network access rates to web content suppliers, in return for their guarantees that the infrastructure will work smoothly. This raises the prospect of new digital haves and have-nots in cyberspace. Advocates of an open Internet are vehemently opposed to preferential treatment of traffic and the notion of any “tax” on the Internet. The implicit threat is that telecom companies could create a tiered Internet experience, with fast and slow access depending on what users can afford.

Dr. Hamadoun Touré, the secretary-general of ITU, has stated that he expects the Dubai meeting to be tough. Yet in an interview with Canada’s Association of IT Professionals last July, he played down its impact saying, “We are seeing quite a lot of people talking about how this conference is going to be about internet governance; in fact nothing could be further from the truth. There are no proposals from our membership on this topic.”

Downplaying the significance of the Dubai meeting to Internet governance may well be diplomatic brinkmanship by the secretary-general, and an indication of the competing political and commercial interests he has to manage. The Internet was still in its infancy in the last time the group met to revise the International Telecommunication Regulations, in 1988. There is no question that the regulations need to be updated to reflect the dramatically different technology landscape of the 21st century. Still, the fear is that a body that functions primarily through governments and represents the interests of governments would be incapable of comprehending or responding to the diverse interests of Internet stakeholders. Such a body should not be given control over a globally interconnected network that transcends the geography, politics, and the special interests of individual nation-states.

Defend the Values, Protect the Internet

A change from governance by many moving parts to a more statist, monolithic model would represent a tectonic shift in the philosophical foundations of the Internet. It would also likely have profound and perilous ramifications for the future of the Internet and its global users. More fundamentally, overly bureaucratic Internet governance would hamstring decision making and innovation, blunting the growth and development of the Internet.

National governments have a major role to play on the Internet, especially as it relates to defending citizens’ interests and defending against cyber-security threats. According to Vint Cerf, one of the founding architects of the Internet, “The net prospered precisely because governments — for the most part — allowed the Internet to grow organically, with civil society, academia, private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development, operation and governance.”

Internet users around the world, but particularly those in developing regions, need to consider carefully the pros and cons of proposed changes to the global Internet governance model. The motives of those advocating preservation of the status quo must also be critically assessed. There is definitely room to improve governance of the Internet, but abandoning the principles and values that have led to its success as a global platform for innovation and development is not the answer. Too much is at stake for anyone to remain ignorant of the issues, or worse, silent in response.