Who Will Govern the Internet?

M-H. Carolyn Nguyen works on policy issues related to Internet governance at Microsoft.

Paul Mitchell directs Microsoft’s Internet governance and spectrum policy agenda. He is on the United Nations Broadband Commission and focuses on issues related to access and development.

John Arquilla recently asked, “what if we, too, could imagine the Internet serving as a vehicle for cooperation, the sharing of hopeful stories; the communications link between moderate citizens creating positive social change; and as a voice for democratic action?”

Cooperation and the exchange of ideas have been at the heart of human advancement, and the Internet has become the most effective mechanism for enabling a global, unconstrained, and timely exchange of ideas in history. But the borderless world of the Internet conflicts directly with today’s global geopolitical system, the foundation of which relies on the sovereignty of national governments.

Cooperation and the exchange of ideas have been at the heart of human advancement, and the Internet has become the most effective mechanism for enabling a global, unconstrained, and timely exchange of ideas in history.

Governments have varying views on the balance between freedom of expression and national security and identity. Those that are interested in tighter control have increasingly mobilized international organizations, such as the United Nations, to implement intergovernmental models for Internet governance. Many of these governments have cited the Snowden revelations regarding the overreach of the National Security Agency as a rationale. However, Arquilla’s vision of communication and collaboration can only be realized if all stakeholders are committed to ensuring that the Internet remains open and interoperable globally. Discomfort with some topics such as differing attitudes towards race, politics, science, or religion, should not result in fracturing the Internet’s vibrant and continually-expanding ecosystem.

What Is Internet Governance?

Internet governance encompasses a broad spectrum of issues. A working definition, developed as part of the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), is “the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.” The issues can be grouped into two categories:

  • Technical governance of the Internet for sustained stability, security, and resiliency, through continued protocol development, managed in voluntary standards organizations driven by technical experts. This includes evolution of the domain name system (DNS) and protocol parameters (the unique codes that enable character encoding and traffic management for the Internet) needed to run the Internet globally, managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California nonprofit corporation, under a contract from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
  • Sociopolitical governance of Internet use, driven by increasing concerns about the Internet’s effects on society. It covers issues such as the integrity, privacy, and security of information transmitted on the Internet, including child pornography, fraud, spam, intellectual property, surveillance, freedom of speech, human rights, and unequal revenue distribution.

No single venue or authority makes global decisions on any of these aspects. A federated, multi-stakeholder approach in which governments, business, civil societies, technical experts, and other interested parties all participate, has been in use since the beginnings of the Internet.  However, this process is not satisfactory to governments that prefer a centralized, intergovernmental—or government-to-government—decision-making process backed up by regulation.

Challenges in 2015

Paul Mitchell & M-H.Carolyn Nguyen Building Peace Forum Who Will Govern the Internet? #PeaceTech

(Photo Credit: Gates Foundation via Flickr)

In the past two years, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation, China, and India have proposed global intergovernmental regulation of both technical and sociopolitical aspects of the Internet to replace or augment the current system. The proposals are motivated by various domestic concerns, but a central one is a view that the Internet is too free and open, and that content available on it is damaging or disrespectful in some way.

The proposals have included elements that, if adopted as regulation, would curb freedom of expression, restrict or block citizens’ access to content, impose additional barriers to Internet access, or increase the ease with which some voices could be silenced by ensuring that dissenting views could not be published or accessed. In other words, these proposals could result in governments blocking content they find objectionable or prosecuting journalists or bloggers who advocate for greater freedoms—already a reality that professionals and dissenters face in several countries around the world.

ICANN has a critical role in managing the Internet’s address book, the DNS. ICANN has evolved sophisticated and inclusive processes to enable anyone to participate in virtually any aspect of its work, and to resolve conflicts among stakeholders through its policy development processes. These include a clear separation of policy functions from technical functions; a joint affirmation of commitments (with the U.S. Department of Commerce) that decisions will be made in the public interest and be accountable and transparent; and participation of all sectors, including technical, academic, civil society, government, and business, in decision-making. Governments participate in ICANN processes as stakeholders, however many governments would prefer more direct oversight.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced its intention to transition oversight of DNS and other functions to the global, multi-stakeholder community and stated specific requirements that any transition proposal must address. While there is no fixed date for when the transition must occur, there is interest in concluding the process by September 2015, when the current contract with ICANN expires.  ICANN has launched a multi-stakeholder process to determine the best approach to both improve ICANN’s accountability to the global Internet community, and transition the DNS operational functions to a new structure that will not be controlled by any government or intergovernmental organization.  The goal is to ensure no government would have the ability to unilaterally control the Internet’s addressing scheme.

The DNS transition is only about technical management of the DNS system. In parallel, the UN General Assembly will conclude a ten-year review of WSIS, which will attempt to address many sociopolitical aspects. Both developments create a highly-charged political environment for Internet governance in 2015 that will be marked by intensifying efforts to assert government control and limit freedom of expression.

While messy and chaotic—like democracy itself—the Internet’s multi-stakeholder governance model has resulted in astonishing achievements globally.


There is no question that some Internet content is culturally and socially disrespectful, hateful, and dangerous. But there is far more content that motivates, uplifts, educates, connects, elevates, and inspires humans to advance. It is critical for moving toward a peaceful world that the ICANN and WSIS processes strengthen today’s dynamic and evolving Internet, rather than raise barriers based on fear or misguided paternalism. While messy and chaotic—like democracy itself—the Internet’s multi-stakeholder governance model has resulted in astonishing achievements globally. When freedom of expression prevails, it creates positive social change. For the Internet to fulfill the role John Arquilla envisions, all stakeholders must resolve to ensure it remains open, seamless, and global.

(Feature Photo Credit: lecates via Flickr)
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