Two cheers for internet democracy

The call for broader management of the internet raises many questions

For something stitched together by a mix of educational organisations, telcos and private companies on a basic foundation of defence technology, the internet has done astoundingly well. It has become an essential part of many businesses and communication among individuals. Government agencies have taken it up eagerly as a key means of communicating with the citizen and businesses.

The way it is run has, however, been a sometimes uneasy blend of effort by individuals, private-sector companies and the more-or-less visible hand of the US government. Internet governance has been through a number of worrying lurches already, notably with the Clinton administration’s efforts to divest the US government of responsibility for the network and the death of John Postel, the chief architect and manager of the original semi-formal governance of the domain-name system, in 1998.

These incidents ultimately brought about the founding of ICANN. Although a private-sector body, ICANN is still under a certain degree of control from the US Department of Commerce. ICANN was originally focussed on top-level domains such as .com, .org and .net, and administrators for top-level domains outside the US had to negotiate fiercely for an adequate role at the ICANN table.

Now we’re fighting a similar battle again, but at the level of community and culture as well as technology and administration. A strong push at the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was for more involvement of countries outside the US and Europe.

Some of these countries seem to think governance is about governments. That may be a mere linguistic misunderstanding, but even in the considered plans of the United Nations Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) there is a drift in the direction of increased national government involvement, even as the US government backs away.

Two of the four options put forward by the working group put government interests in a dominant position. Only one specifies equitable participation by government, private industry and civil society. The fourth is a near-status-quo option.

Heavy participation of governments, with their perspective of sovereignty over their own territory, could see the face of the internet irrevocably changed — even a split into regions administered according to subtly different principles.

Governance is a complex stack. Many see it chiefly as a matter of making the technical aspects work well and suggest a “hands-off” attitude to emerging nations — a view that the US and Europe developed the internet and should be allowed to remain in a position of control to ensure technical integrity.

But demand for other-country involvement is a much broader political and social issue. The UN is a “democratic” institution, but not all the governments or non-governmental institutions that come to its table are wedded to democracy; other systems of government may try to make their influence felt on “governance”.

A strength of the internet’s design is its layered structure, with each layer able to assume the correct functioning of the layer below. With the governance question, it is less clear that these can be fully separated; that the political differences can float on top of a stable technical structure.

What if a country judged by most to have an unstable or non-democratic government asks to run a root server or other vital infrastructural element?

At a level more pertinent to New Zealand, peering exchanges are part of the technical structure but their role in shortening communications paths and reducing costs has been cited at WSIS as helping achieve the social objective of narrowing the “digital divide”. What degree of international authority might our telcos be prepared to accept if peering is mandated by the governance body?

A third important party is private commerce. Efficiency and “customer confidence” are likely to be its priorities, along with a less overt interest in using online information to gain supposed insights into customer behaviour. It’s easy to see those priorities influencing the technical layer in the direction of enforced and verifiable user identity and physical location data.

The idea of governance “rooted in the United Nations” may not appeal to the fast-moving coalition of technical specialists and businesses; the UN is hardly known for moving at “internet speed” in its deliberations. We can only hope that impatience will not lead to “coalitions of the willing” seeking to push things along faster on their own. This would risk messy splits, inconsistencies and even conflict across the internet.

"So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism," said EM Forster in 1951. "Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three." We could say that about today's internet; how many cheers will we feel able to give the new model?

Bell is a Computerworld reporter

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