Internet Governance: Who’s in charge here?

The internet is the perfect example of how globalization is changing the ways that policy makers go about setting regulations. Unlike most services, the internet has no clear sovereign ruler, and its technical construction itself only further muddies the issue.  These days it seems that every administration has an interest in internet governance – from censorship to copyright infringement to data protection — yet the questions remains: who, if anyone, has the power to govern the internet?

In Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace, Mueller and Milton touch upon one of the most important underlying problems: the internet, while seemingly boundless, is in fact a limited commodity. They state that domain names must be unique, and provide examples of possible rationing methods: first-come-first-served, administrative fees, market pricing, administrative rules, or merit distribution.[1] Each of these methods presents its own subsequent difficulties, such as: who sets fees, enforces rules, or judges merit.

Clearly something has to be done to facilitate safe, fair internet usage, but what? Mathiason et al states: “We define Internet governance as ‘collective action, by governments and/or the private sector operations of the networks connected to the Internet, to establish agreements about the standards, policies, rules, and enforcement and dispute resolution procedures to apply to global internetworking activities.’”[2] To reiterate, internet governance is most importantly a collective endeavor.

MacLean summarizes the three primary options for internet governance that have emerged over time: 1) the traditional internet view, in which “Internet governance should be limited to three areas: technical standardization, management of the address and domain name systems and some service related issues,” all of which would operate through existing mechanisms; 2) the traditional telecommunications view, which sees a wider range of issues needing governance, including “financing and deployment of the internet” and modifying the existing framework; 3) the network transformation view, which “sees the need to re-think the governance of the Internet and the governance of other kinds of communication networks in light of” communication network switches to IP-based networks.[3]

In my opinion, a combination of all three options is needed. Using existing mechanisms is the easiest starting point, but traditional governance means are falling short, so some expansion to governance issues needs to occur. Additionally, one of the very first successful multi-nationally regulated networks was the telegraph system; telecommunications has a long history of international governance – undoubtedly much could be learned from them. However, one cannot forget the public aspect. Even though the government created the internet, the public has perpetuated and customized it. Governments must administer the internet lightly, and only where necessary.

 

Mathiason and Mueller believe that “if Internet governance is to be obtained, it must be treaty-based. And the treaties must have universal adherence to be fully effective.”[4] Obtaining absolute agreement on any treaty is unfeasible, yet a diverse committee could be close enough to establish acceptable norms and rules that a majority of nations could embrace. Future internet committees must consist of members from both developed and developing countries and strive to ensure equal internet usage for all. The industrial revolution left weaker countries developmentally stunted. The internet revolution has the possibility to do the same if managed in a biased manner.

 


[1] Mueller and Milton, Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 24.
[2] Mathiason, Mueller, Klein, and Holitscher, “Internet Governance: the State of Play” In IGP Working Paper (September 2004 ), 8.
[3] MacLean, “Herding Schrödinger’s Cats: Some conceptual Tools for Thinking about Internet Governance,” In Background Paper for the ITU Workshop on Internet Governance (February 2004), 9.
[4] Mathiason and Mueller, “Internet Governance Quo Vadis? A Response to the WGIG Report” In IGP Working Paper (July 2005), 3.

 
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