The openness of the Internet has been a catalyst for many of the social and economic advances of the past two decades. It has facilitated a level of human communication and interconnection unprecedented in human history. The staggering global popularity of social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube are testament to this. It has also spurred new level of innovation that has fuelled significant economic development. The McKinsey Global Institute, a US-based think-tank, estimates that in developed countries the Internet has generated as much as 10% of GDP growth over the past 15 years.
The impressive growth of the Internet has not been without challenges. The structures necessary to oversee such a dynamic creature as the Internet have to continually adapt to a shifting set of global priorities and pressures. Further, Internet-enabled economic benefits, and the power and influence that goes with it, have not always been channeled to developing nations.
Managing Chaos – the Multi-stakeholder Approach
Answering the questions of who is responsible for addressing equity and growth of the Internet, and who is to be charged with creating and governing a more even playing field is rather complicated. No single organization or country is responsible for governing the Internet. Instead, the Internet is managed by a mélange of organisations, representing a variety of interests and responsibilities.
Despite the global significance of their function, the institutions currently charged with administering the institutions 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 collection of regional Internet registries such as the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC) and American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), that coordinate IP addresses; the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the central coordinator for the development and promotion Internet standards Internet protocols; or the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which develops global technical standards so that devices and software can interoperate. Many of their meetings are open to the general public and offer both online and offline access, as well as an opportunity to contribute, to anyone willing to participate. The list of three and four-letter acronymed groups gets even more obscure when one adds the many other organizations and stakeholder groups that coordinate Internet-related resources, standards and policy.
It is no surprise that many onlookers view this multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance chaotic and inefficient. Some argue that the Internet is simply too important globally to be left to such a loose model of governance. However, history, the facts and the fruits of an open Internet argue otherwise. The seemingly loose, decentralized, multi-stakeholder governance model has worked amazingly well in managing the exponential growth of the Internet. Proponents of this model believe that is because the system is so open and decentralized that potentially anyone, anywhere on the planet can invent new applications, develop content or technology and interconnect it with the global network.
Internet Governance Under Threat
Yet, all is not well. The stakes are high in the growing global debate on 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 un-represented 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 centre is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations 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 a summit called the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) scheduled for December 2012 in Dubai.
The ITU is a model example of an international bureaucracy whose ponderous, top-down approach to decision-making could hardly be more antithetical to the Internet’s dynamic, bottom-up approach to governance. As a UN treaty-based organization, if the ITU’s proposals were to be passed in Dubai, it would bind member countries to an Internet Governance model that is essentially dictated and controlled by governments. More fundamentally it could hamstring decision-making and constrain the pace of growth and development on the Internet.
Such a move 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.
Defend the Values, Protect the Internet
The role governments have played in allowing the Internet to grow organically has been a significant factor in its success. But the multi-stakeholder approach to development, operation and governance has been an equally important complement. There is room for improvement in the current model of Internet governance; however, abandoning the principles and values that have led to Internet’s success as a global platform for innovation and development is not the answer.
Countries around the world, but particularly those in developing regions, need to critically examine pros and cons of move by ITU and the position of global Internet Governance organizations. Too much is at stake for anyone to remain ignorant of the issues, or worse, silent in response.
Bevil Wooding is an Internet Strategist with Packet Clearing House, a US-based research non-profit, and Chief Knowledge Officer of Congress WBN, a global non-profit focused on values-based nations development. Follow on Twitter: @bevilwooding and Facebook: facebook.com/bevilwooding or email [email protected]