Internet governance

Internet governance is a highly contested area. Different kinds of international agreements attempt to control aspects of the Internet.

Multistakeholder governance

Officially, the Internet is not governed by any particular state or treaty. The technologies are developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force, governed by the independent Internet Society. Policies about the future of the Internet are discussed at the annual Internet Governance Forum, which has no decision-making power.

Numbers and domain names are allocated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a private company with a mandate from the US government. This association with the US government has been used to claim that the Internet is in some way controlled by the USA, but name and number allocation are perhaps the least important part of Internet governance.

Of greater importance is the development of the protocols which underly Internet communications. These protocols could be abused by governments, if they were able to dictate, for instance, what methods of encryption were to be used. protocols could also be abused to introduce content controls, or censorship.

The attraction of transparent, multi stakeholder governance is that governments are unable to set rules that allow the abuse and control of Internet content at a technical level.

ICANN controversy

Because ICANN continues to operate under a US government contract, this has remained as a controversial emblem of US influence and alleged control of the Internet. Milton Mueller for instance states:

if we can actually detach nation states from ICANN, then we have moved in what I think is the right direction, which is to have self-governance by civil society and the private sector. On the other hand, if we keep militarizing and nationalizing the Internet we’ll end up with something like the more restrictive and controlled telephone networks of the 1970s.[1]

However, domain names and IP allocation have little to do with the problems of censorship and surveillance.

Attempts to assert government control of the Internet

Recently, the International Telecoms Union has been used as a forum to establish state-led governance of the Internet by treaty. The ITU is part of the United Nations. This is fuelled to an extent by anti-US sentiment, and also by a desire by more authoritarian states to develop technological means to assert control over the flow of information across the Internet.

Intellectual property agreements, including ACTA, have also attempted to assert control over aspects of the Internet, by creating new legal duties on governments and ISPs to regulate content.

Montevideo statement: the post Snowden response to Internet governance

Post Snowden, the main Internet agencies have felt under pressure to distance themselves from the actions of the US government, and potentially to suggest further changes to Internet governance. The danger is of course that moves to using UN agencies could simply mean undue government influence.

ISOC published a joint statement with the other agencies, including the the IETF and W3C. They warned against the consequences of mass surveillance, acknowledged the need to decentralise ICANN and perhaps move it away from US contractual control, but also to continue with the multi stakeholder approach:

They reinforced the importance of globally coherent Internet operations, and warned against Internet fragmentation at a national level. They expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance.
They identified the need for ongoing effort to address Internet Governance challenges, and agreed to catalyze community-wide efforts towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation.
They called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.

They also called for the transition to IPv6 to remain a top priority globally. In particular Internet content providers must serve content with both IPv4 and IPv6 services, in order to be fully reachable on the global Internet.[2]

Although the statement is quite surprising, in recognising the consequences of mass surveillance, and is important in reiterating the need for multi-stakeholder governance, it does not represent a decisive break from US influence, as the US government's direct, formal influence over the technical development of the Internet is negligible.

Rio Conference 2014

The Brazilian government and ISOC are organising an international conference in Rio de Janeiro, in April 2014, to develop ideas around Internet governance.[3]