On the Importance of Internet Governance
By Leonie M Tanczer, on 19 May 2020
Dr Leonie Maria Tanczer, Lecturer at UCL STEaPP, reflects on her experience having participated in Internet Society’s Next Generation Leaders (NGL) e-Learning programme and makes a case for why the governance of the Internet should matter to all of us.
In my role as Lecturer in International Security and Emerging Technologies at UCL, I teach on the “Digital Technologies and Policy” specialisation for our Master’s in Public Administration. I am, thus, used to explaining the technical foundations, policy dilemmas, and stakeholders that make the Internet the kind of infrastructure we love and also rely on. Nevertheless, when the call to apply for the Internet Society’s Next Generation Leaders (NGL) programme hit my inbox, I felt compelled to sign up. I mean, who wouldn’t want to learn more about our beloved tool?!
What is the Internet Society?
The Internet Society is one of the core actors within the larger Internet ecosystem. Inititially, members of the Internet community were predominantly linked to US universities, where they developed technical standards and established the Internet’s basic functionality. However, over the last decade, the range of stakeholders involved in keeping the Internet up and running has significantly expanded. Nowadays, governments as much as the private sector, civil society, and intergovernmental organisations are engaged in “governing” the Internet.
In particular the so-called “technical community” – which the Internet Society is part of – is concerned with maintaining and advancing the underlying architecture for the Internet, including protocols such as IPv6, standards, and other software and hardware specifications. Together with actors such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Regional Internet Registries (RIR), or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Society is active in furthering the success of the Internet and promoting the Internet core values (such as openness, access, and end-to-end connectivity). Whilst these activities are of profound importance and matter to each of us (because we want to browse faster, safer, and cheaper!), the “average” Internet user may not have heard of them.
To counteract this information vacuum, the Internet Society’s NGL e-Learning programme aims to helps professionals aged 20-40 learn the core elements of the Internet’s history, governance, policy principles, and actors. The four-week-long course is foundational (which gave me the perfect opportunity to test my knowledge) and open to individuals from around the globe. In many ways, the offering aids the Internet Society’s aspiration to foster “capacity building” and provides interested parties with an ability to dip their toe into the 101 of Internet Governance.
Wait, so what is Internet Governance?
As one learns in the online programme, there is no universally agreed definition of “Internet Governance” and no “right” or “wrong” taxonomy of all affiliated issues. Over the last years, the management of Internet Domain Names and Internet Protocol addresses was probably one of the essential themes associated with the topic. However, as the DiploFoundation’s illustration showcases, far more areas beyond the technical infrastructure and standards have to be considered. Legal, developmental, economical, and socio-cultural factors shape – and are shaped by – decisions and processes made by different stakeholders. This interdependency is the main reason why “technology” and “policy” so closely interact!
As Mueller (2010, p. 241) noted: “(…) in Internet Governance there is no way to separate ‘public policy’ from ‘technical and operational matters’. The two are deeply intertwined. (…) To enforce public policy upon the Internet is to regulate technical and operational matters (and vice versa)”. Hence, it is vital to remember that decisions made by non-technical actors, such as laws that demand stricter enforcement of online surveillance, will and have a major impact on the Internet’s protocols and technical procedures. Conversely, decisions made by technical actors such as private corporations like Google and Facebook have a significant impact on the way society and the economy functions and runs.
Nonetheless, why does this matter for all of us?
Well, of course, you may choose not to care about Internet Governance, just as much as I have chosen not to care about football or crochet. Yet, I would say that Internet Governance has more importance for your day to day life than say Arsenal and crocheting (hardcore fans of either will probably beg to differ). Indeed, the latest COVID-19 pandemic has showcased how reliant society has become on this thing we once awkwardly termed “cyberspace”. Whether it is the ability to work remotely from home, call our loved ones, or pursue “contact tracing” efforts, the Internet and the opportunities this infrastructure has provided resulted in the kind of environment and life we are living in.
To me, the NGL e-Learning programme vividly demonstrates that from the early stepping stones of the ARPANET to the commercialisation of the Internet in the 1990s: the Internet is never going to be a “finished” product. Design principles and technological decisions taken and implemented back in the 1960s, such as packet switching, open standards, interoperability, remain embedded within the Internet’s architecture to this very day. However, this does not mean that decisions taken today will not risk altering systems negatively in the long run. I remind readers about the discussions around net neutrality or the decades-long debates about how to get rid of “anonymity” and solve the issue of “content regulation”. We must be alert and engaged in ensuring that the tool we dearly love and value remains open and accessible to us all. The only way to do this is to ultimately begin to engage. May it be in multistakeholder fora that make – or at least lobby for – particular decisions (e.g., Internet Society, Internet Governance Forum) or by joining interest groups.
Having undergone the Internet Society’s NGL e-Learning programme, I am reminded why I became so passionate about the topic of technology and policy in the first place. So far, I have personally profited from the innovations derived from the original ARPANET. However, not everyone has this privilege, and it seems that in many ways, the Internet is steadily becoming an environment that is more centralised, biased, and unfair. To counteract this, more – and more diverse – groups of people need to get involved in the Internet Governance space and have their voice heard.
I hope initiatives such as Internet Society’s programme (and our MPA course!) support this ambition and create the necessary spark to make people ask important questions about the things we take for granted: What is actually happening when you type a URL into the browser? How are decisions about cybersecurity standards made? And who really is responsible for keeping this ambiguous “thing” – the Internet – well and alive?
Does this make you curious? Well, dig into it! It’s worth exploring!
Are you still reading?
For those eager persons that have not yet swapped back to Twitter and are instead keen to learn more about this fascinating topic and don’t know where to start, I have three-pointers to help feed your thirst for knowledge:
- Join the Internet Society UK England Chapter (Internet Society UK) or any other chapter for that matter.
- Check out the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) if you would like to get involved in the multistakeholder process. There are also national and regional IGF activities that you may want to have a look at.
- Follow core voices in the Internet Governance field (Internet Society, IETF, ICANN, WSIS, Access Now) either by signing up for their monthly newsletters or following them on Twitter.
And if all of that is not enough for you, you may want to find out more about Professor Peter T. Kirstein who is one of the many pioneers of the Internet and described as the “founding father” of the European Internet (with UCL being the first node!) and join our MPA in “Digital Technologies and Policy where we cover far more of these issues over the course of a full year.