Many governments struggle with their role in the world of Internet governance. The nature of that role was the subject of a panel discussion presented by The Institute for International Economic Policy (IIEP) at The George Washington University and The Washington DC Chapter of The Internet Society (ISOC-DC) on January 23rd in Washington, DC. Briefly put, the panel’s response to question of the role of governments is that “there is a role for governments” in Internet governance – among other stakeholder groups.

The Panel

Amr Aljowaily, Embassy of Egypt, NYC
Sally Wentworth, Vice President of Global Policy Development, The Internet Society
Veni Markowski, Bulgaria, ICANN VP for UN Engagement
Andrea Glorioso, Counselor for the Digital Economy at the Delegation of the European Union to the USA, in Washington DC.
Carolina de Cresce El Debs, Embassy of Brazil
David Satola, The World Bank 

Nancy Scola, The Washington Post

The debate over the role of governments in the realm of Internet governance stems in large part from the inherent contradictions between governments and governance and the Internet and the tensions that have played out over time between policy makers and the Internet governance community as a result of those tensions.

Whereas governments are largely characterized by hierarchical organization and siloed functionalities, the Internet is by nature collaborative and connected:

the people using TCP/IP built the Internet – and …. the Internet became the Internet because the technology favored the users who were spreading it across the globe. This often happened despite government regulation and international cooperation – especially cooperation in the CCITT (now the ITU-T) and ISO. Both bodies proposed alternatives to TCP/IP that were ultimately rejected – by the users.

The pendulum of perception concerning the role of governments has shifted noticeably over the last few years. Many saw the ITU’s WCIT, held in early December of 2012 as an attempt by the U.N. to “take control of the internet”. After the Snowden revelations, fear of pervasive government intrusion helped to motivate the NetMundial meeting in Brazil in April of 2014. The outcome statement of that meeting strongly advocated the multistakeholder model of Internet governance. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdot attacks in Paris, the need for security (which means expanded government access to Internet data) has increased dramatically amidst understandable countervailing privacy concerns.

The standard dichotomy about the role of Government in Internet governance posits a government centric multi-lateral model against the multi-stakeholder model which is increasingly being acknowledged as the only realistic model for the Internet.  However, this role of will necessarily have to move beyond reductionist clichés in the coming years as several Internet inflection points on the horizon will require the cooperative participation of all stakeholders, particularly the transition of the IANA functions (the Internet’s coordination of names and numbers, i.e. web site addresses to the servers that host their files) from the US Government to a yet undefined entity.

Sally Wentworth talked about the many layers of Internet Governance including the technical and policy layers. Internet governance must live in the intersection between technology and public policy in order to maintain the interoperability and innovation that have made the Internet an engine for growth. In this light, the multi-stakeholder model is “how you do policy in the Internet age”. Problems like privacy and security can be addressed constructively by an inclusive and collaborative process.

Amr Aljowaily helped to put the evolution of Internet governance in context by examining the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the UN sponsored conferences on ICT created to help adapt policy for the Internet age.

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In 2014, Brazil convened the NetMundial Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance. The conference and its outcome document were in general favorably received, however the eponymous NetMundial Initiative met with substantial resistance: 

a number of . . . representatives . . . have called into question the lack of transparency, bottom up inclusion and consultation in this process as well as the need to better clarify how this Initiative adds separate value and is supportive rather than duplicative of the IGF. 

Many key stakeholders in fact withdrew participation from the NMI. The panel provided Carolina de Cresce El Debs the opportunity to proclaim Brazil’s strong support of the multistakeholder model and the Brazilian government’’s intention to launch (or relaunch) the NMI as a platform to “share and support some bottom up solutions”. She added that Brazil will not support any initiatives that infringe upon human rights or stifle innovation. Brazil also views addressing the digital divide as a major priority.

David Satola discussed the World Bank’s interest in Internet governance, which stems from the substantial ICT dimension in their lending, and a corresponding interest in the development of global standards.

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Andrea Glorioso discussed the role of governments in Internet governance within the context of the role of governments in general, i.e. upholding the law within their borders. He stated the need for respect of this as well as for patience as the Internet Governance ecosystem evolves to meet its challenges.

Veni Markowski talked about his experiences as the head of an ISP as well as the Bulgarian Chapter of Internet society in Bulgaria where he used the courts to prevent excessive government interference in the initial stages of the Internet. He pointed out that no one person or group controls the Internet or could possibly turn it of in an entire country.

The panel examined the contradictions between the Internet and governance that must be overcome. Professor Milton Mueller succinctly characterized a fundamental distinction between the Internet and governments during the question and answer period. Governments, Mueller explained, are “territorial” in their jurisdiction, where as the Internet exists beyond borders – beyond the scope of previous trans border technologies such as radio. The Internet indeed transcends borders. The ongoing evolution of the Internet as an engine for innovation and growth will require its continued technical interoperability as well as a harmonization of policy beyond borders on a level that has not previously existed.  This in turn will require the collaborative participation of all stakeholders. Within that ecosystem, there is certainly a role for governments.