"While it is highly unlikely a doomsday scenario will unfold at the WCIT itself, it is clear that substantial changes to Internet governance are possible over the next several years."
This post was co-authored with Gordon Smith, a Distinguished Fellow at the Waterloo, Canada based Centre for International Governance Innovation.
It is reassuring that, with the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) underway, there is increasing awareness of the threats to the Internet posed by a number of the amendments, significantly in many cases supported by authoritarian governments. There is less awareness of the serious economic implications of some of the proposed ITR amendments.
While it is highly unlikely a doomsday scenario will unfold at the WCIT itself, it is clear that substantial changes to Internet governance are possible over the next several years. Internet governance — and yes, it is has always been governed, though not solely by states — has developed organically and sometimes without sufficient coordination or forethought. Improvements to Internet governance are not necessarily a bad idea; the trick is to get it right, by strengthening, enhancing and preserving the multi-stakeholder model.
To do so, it is necessary to make the process as open and inclusive as possible. Specifically, it is necessary to bridge the gap between a traditional Internet community on the one hand and a policy/governance community on the other. Both of these communities bring critical experience and expertise to the table; the problem, put simply, is translation between these two distinct and highly technical languages.
Anxieties and misunderstandings have plagued such translation attempts. The recent attacks on the WCIT website in response to the negotiations in Dubai are one indicator that all is not well in this regard. Yet it is important to recognize that Internet activists and hackers have partially overlapping interests with many of the state delegations attending the WCIT that are committed to maintaining multi-stakeholder Internet governance models.
The traditional Internet community and the governance community will no doubt continue to have strong disagreements both internally and in their interactions with each other. The key is that the two groups learn more about each other in order to craft a mutually acceptable modus vivendi. If that happens, we can avoid a scenario in which conversations about Internet governance are poisoned from the outset and in which it is impossible to bring knowledge about public policy and governance to bear on the Internet.
The focus should now be on a strategy for the next five to ten years where those who value an Internet as free as possible work together to concert their efforts. CIGI, a Canadian think tank, has started to bring together state and non-state actors to this end. For more, see Safeguarding a free Internet in The Globe and Mail.
By Mark Raymond, Research Fellow, Global Security at CIGI