The Internet has revolutionised the way we live and do business, but governments and NGOs around the world are turning their attention to managing growing concerns about privacy and security.

It is a truism to say how important the Internet has become to our lives, our societies and our economies. And yet, despite its sometimes revolutionary impacts, the Internet is at a critical point in its development. Its rapid growth presents a variety of challenges. People are concerned about their privacy and security in the face of government surveillance, commercial use of personal data and cybercrime. Technologists struggle to ensure the Internet is able to keep pace with the rapidly growing number of its users. Developing countries are not yet able to fully benefit from the digital economy, and must be included.

There are also challenges to the way the Internet has traditionally been governed. As the Internet’s importance grows, some governments are pushing for increased national control and a greater voice in the governance of the Internet – both its infrastructure and its use. The outcome of the debate is not at all clear but, whatever the result, it will certainly affect a broad sweep of entangled economic, technical, regulatory, political and social interests. Complicating matters further, as former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin pointed out in a recent speech to the T-20, the world’s governments are ill prepared to deal with issues when they lie beyond the scope of purely national interests.

Before digging deeper into this complex problem, let’s start by clarifying what is meant by Internet governance. The UN World Summit on the Information Society developed the following working definition 10 years ago:

Internet governance 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 programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.

This definition highlights several important concepts – first that all parts of society play a part in Internet governance in their area of expertise or authority. Second, it emphasises that principles, norms, rules, etc., must be shared. And finally, that Internet governance is concerned with the evolution and use of the Internet, so it is oriented toward the future and the impact on users. This definition has been widely accepted since 2005, in what has come to be called the multi-stakeholder model.

Here are a few examples of multi-stakeholder governance that exist today, and some of the challenges they face:

Numeric Internet addresses (which non-technical people rarely see) are key to being able to use the Internet. Specialised organisations called Regional Internet Registries have evolved to manage what is essentially the Internet’s phone book: handing out addresses, ensuring that quality control is in place, and making policies to govern address allocation and use. These are multistakeholder entities, bringing together technical experts, commercial users, law enforcement officials, governments and civil society to debate and make decisions. These various stakeholders affect, and are affected by, the decisions the RIRs make. This aspect of Internet governance works well, and yet there has been a debate about whether the RIRs should continue their work, or should be taken over by a UN agency.

Another example is the governance of the better-known domain names that users see in their Web browsers in place of numeric addresses. The Domain Name System is managed by ICANN, a California-based not-for-profit. ICANN brings together the industry that creates and sells domain names, together with their customers, intellectual property interests, governments, academics, not-for-profit entities and Internet users. Together these sometimes competing interests are able to make both technical and policy decisions. ICANN’s future governance model is currently the topic of intense debate, because the US Government has announced it believes it can now give up its oversight of the organisation. Processes are underway to determine what will take its place, and these are a focal point for a key Internet governance debate.

A number of multilateral organisations which have long dealt with issues such as telecommunications, trade and intellectual property are starting to expand their focus to the Internet. Examples include United Nations entities like UNESCO, the ITU and WIPO. The OECD is another of these, as are the WTO and regional organisations like APEC, the Council of Europe, and the OAS. There is also a range of special purpose inter-governmental bodies like The London Action Plan, complemented by private sector, academic and civil society organisations actively involved with issues that fall under the heading of Internet governance.

The fact that the Internet is now widely acknowledged to be a core element in our economies, our societies and our personal lives means that these organisations increasingly come into contact, and sometimes into conflict, because of their different composition and different approaches. To be effective, Internet governance must bring all the affected stakeholders’ views to the table to find workable solutions built on shared values.

One long held and generally shared value underlying the Internet’s success is that of openness. In this context, openness has many meanings. The engineers who created the Internet will tell you that its interconnected architecture was designed to be open by default. The Internet is based on technical standards and protocols developed in open forums such as the Internet Engineering Task Force. Internet standards are not mandatory; they are adopted voluntarily because they work, allowing people (and machines) to communicate. By extension, Internet openness has come to include a preference for open markets, enabling rather than restrictive regulation and the open exchange of information and ideas. It means openness to what is known as “permissionless innovation” even if that can be disruptive to established business models and conventions. Think, for example, of the disruption caused in the travel industry. It also means openness in Internet governance, where all parties affected by rules should be able to participate in developing those rules. Openness has also inclined to support social openness, although that assumption can be more controversial.

For the Internet as we know it, openness has been and will continue to be essential.

In 2008, the OECD’s Ministerial Meeting on the Future of the Internet Economy recognised the link between the openness of the Internet and its ability to be a catalyst for economic growth and social wellbeing. As new technologies, new applications and new uses for the Internet have developed, its openness has expanded to influence other areas such as:

  • Extending trade, not only to a broader geographical reach for companies, but to engage new customers, and to create new trade opportunities, where anything that can be digitised can be traded on the Internet.
  • Providing new opportunities for innovation, knowledge sharing and entrepreneurship. The light-handed regulatory approach that has characterised the Internet environment has encouraged unimaginable creativity, where new entrants need not seek approval to launch new services (as long as they are legal).
  • Strengthening social development through greater access to social services such as health care and education – sometimes domestically, sometimes across borders.
  • Creating ways to mobilise communities, encourage communications and democratise access to information.

Even with all these benefits, most of us recognise that openness must be bounded. There are legitimate reasons for setting limits. Too much openness can lead to undesirable consequences. Many examples are obvious, such as the need to protect children and other vulnerable people. The need to maintain security, and to fight crime are others. Governments set limits domestically or multilaterally, but so also can non-government actors such as industry associations. There are ways to restrict openness that respect innovation and human rights, but there is a risk of closing down too much and doing damage.

Too little openness can be economically and socially costly. At the extreme, overzealous attempts to impose limits could ultimately lead to fragmentation of the Internet with grave consequences for civic engagement, trade, innovation and social progress. For example, there are reliable reports that some countries impose restrictions on downloading cross-border educational material, to the obvious detriment of their populations. Others block political or cultural content in the name of protecting their national sovereignty or their preferred set of values.

In 2015, the question all stakeholders are increasingly addressing in Internet governance is whether they value the benefits of an open Internet more or less than their ability to maintain strict control. The Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chatham House have recently created a Global Commission on Internet Governance to provide guidance on how best to address the interests and values of all states on issues on this and other key questions, including governance legitimacy, regulation, innovation, human rights online and systemic risk. That is an ambitious task, but an essential one if we want the Internet to continue acting as a tool for economic and social development.

In April, the Commission issued a call for a new social compact for privacy and security. Such a social compact will not come from lengthy and politicised negotiations. It can only be built on a shared commitment by all stakeholders – in developed and less-developed countries – to build trust and confidence in the Internet. As the Commission continues its work it will strive to find ways to creatively build consensus around issues such as digital citizenship, global security, Internet stability and resiliency, cybercrime, economic and social development and international coordination in Internet governance. In the end, it is in the interest of all stakeholders that the Internet remains trusted as a common global resource: open, affordable, unfettered and available to all as a safe medium for further innovation. Government, business and civil society must work together toward that aim, and toward a new social compact for the 21st century Internet.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.