Monday

19th Apr 2021

Feature

Who governs the online world?

  • Who will govern the web if the US government relinquishes its contract with ICANN, which manages much of the Internet, in 2015? (Photo: Ken Hawkins)

The Internet feels like it has always been with us and it is easy to forget just how recently it became part of public consciousness.

The number of regular web-users has increased from 150 million in 1998 to over 3 billion, and technologists see no reason why this number cannot swell up to 7 billion over the next few years.

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The brainchild of engineers such as Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn from the 1970s onwards, the net has also tended to be run by the engineers that created it. Its governance was left to the experts. Politicians were kept out.

But in recent years online governance has become increasingly political. The debates on net neutrality, data privacy, cyber security, and the future of the Internet’s governing structure have risen up the political agenda.

A public backlash against the anti-counterfeit treaty Acta, which is primarily about protecting intellectual property rights, but which became ingrained in the public psyche as an Internet power grab by governments and service providers, led the European Parliament to veto the treaty in July 2012.

Meanwhile, the revelations by NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden last summer of mass data capture and surveillance by US security authorities prompted widespread public anger and questions about how our data is collected and used by governments.

If there is little indication that it has stopped people from using the web, there is evidence that the NSA scandal has had a detrimental effect on the online economy, where consumer trust and security is a prerequisite.

A report published this spring by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, estimated that the US cloud industry faces up to €25.8 billion in lost revenues.

It also has implications for the methods and structures used to govern the Internet.

In March the US Department of Commerce signalled that it wants to scale down its role in Internet governance, outlining plans to end its contract in September 2015 with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which has been charged with managing domain names since the late 1990s.

For its part, in a paper entitled "Europe's role in shaping the future of Internet governance" the previous European Commission headed by Jose Manuel Barroso signalled its support for an international group to replace the San Francisco-based ICANN and warned that the web should not be allowed to "unravel into a series of regional or national networks”.

Meanwhile, other governments and analysts have mooted the possibility of a international forum based loosely based on the model of the UN Security Council, although this idea has been resisted by most of the technologist and business community.

Mark Raymond, assistant professor at the university of Oklahoma in the US says that consumers are “no longer happy to leave [Internet governance] to the experts”.

“It is too important to leave to engineers”, he told EUoberver at a conference on Internet governance organised by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in Brussels in December.

If there appears to be agreement among politicians, civil society, and industry that Internet governance needs updating, there is no sign of a consensus on what this brave new cyber-world should look like.

“How can we get to a global consensus when the parties can’t even agree on the procedures to draw up the rules?” Raymond asks.

“There is a risk that Internet governance is a canary in a coal mine,” he adds, worrying that failure to reach international agreement “may indicate that we can’t agree on governance in other international policy fields.”

Speaking at the same conference, one of the Internet founding fathers - Cerf - argued that the Internet’s history has been one of only creating new institutions and governing structures “when there is an apparent need” rather than in response to political pressure.

Cerf says the Internet operates in a "post-Westphalian world", a reference to the peace treaty agreed by France and the Habsburg family in 1648 which brought an end to the Thirty Years war and ushered in the concept of state sovereignty which has shaped the modern world.

The Internet does not respect national borders, Cerf believes, explaining that this was “very deliberate in the original design of the network.”

The result of this is that “things that happen on the net are all of our responsibility no matter where they happen”.

It also means that national or even European regulation can have little effect other than to fragment the online world.

Lawmakers are learning this as they shape their responses to the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling by the European Court of Justice in May, which judged that the EU’s data protection laws give Europeans the right to demand that search engines delete results based on a person’s name if the data is irrelevant, out of date, inaccurate, or an invasion of privacy.

This rule may apply in Europe, but there is nothing to prevent the same material being available elsewhere in the world.

Can the Internet survive if politicians, engineers, the business community and activists cannot agree on how it should be run?

The technologist community appears comfortable that a system which has seen its network of users increase by a factor of nearly 30 in less than two decades will not collapse any time soon.

“We would hope that our systems are capable for surviving without consensus,” says Cerf. “There will be a lumpy kind of Internet if we cannot reach agreement but it will still work. It has to work even when it’s broken.”

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