Internet Governance: An Introductory Overview

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What Keeps the Internet Working?

The Internet for most of us now is never farther than a click away. Whether this “click” was performed by a mouse button, when using your laptop or desktop PC, or by a touch to the screen of your smart phone, or tablet. You almost never wonder how it happens that when you launch your favorite messaging application, the first thing in the morning, it retrieves all those messages that your family members, friends, colleagues, clients, etc. have sent over the night, while you were asleep. This is just normal. Only when the abnormal occurs, when your application fails to retrieve those messages, that you wonder “what is wrong with it?”. You check whether your phone is connected to the Internet. “Have I forgotten to renew my data package,” you wonder, “or, is there something wrong with the application itself? More likely it is the messaging service,” so you head to your social media application and post a question “Is WhatsApp down? or is it only me?”. But what if your social media application wasn’t working either? What if none of your Internet-connected applications were working? What if, one morning you wake up to find that the Internet is simply no longer there? Here’s a pause, almost an existential one!

We take a working Internet for granted. It is out there, and it is working 24/7, every day, all the time, and never stops. Sometimes we think that it works only by being there. It works on its own. Almost like a living thing. It needs nobody or nothing to operate it or keep it working. This is of course ridiculous, if you just pause for a moment to think of it. No matter how all these applications on our PCs and phones make us believe, the Internet is not an ethereal being living in a cloud. It is not even A THING it is not one self-contained entity. In fact, it not an entity in the first place. There is no material thing out there that is the Internet. It exists only in our imagination, but it sure exists. To be as accurate as possible, the Internet is a side effect of trillions of communications operations performed over a very large number of inter-connected wired and wireless networks, among billions of different devices connected to these networks. Everything we think of as belonging to the Internet, is in fact a punch of digital, electronic data transfers, back and forth, across these networks. These networks have material existence, wires, cables, transmission towers, satellites in space rounding the earth, and hundreds over hundreds of other types of devices and equipment. None of these works may possibly work on its own. For each to work, and for all to work together, there need to be tens of different technologies created, implemented, negotiated, established, maintained, and operated. All of these actions are performed by different actors. These actors may be state governments, international inter-governmental organizations, independent foundations and institutions, local, regional, or multi-national private sector companies, and even individuals in different capacities.

This endless number of actual operations are what keeps the Internet working, and what keeps it under control as well. Think of these technologies and their operation as thousands of control points, that govern the Internet. Controlling as many as possible of these points grants a larger power over the whole workings of the Internet. As the importance of the Internet grew, control over these points became a site of fierce competition, contest, conflict, struggle, and even war. The arena of these is the large number of policies proposed, promoted, negotiated, established and enacted by different actors and groups of actors, each seeking to preserve and promote its respective interests. Putting the technologies that keep the Internet working, and the policies enacted around them together, we get that thing that can’t be well defined that we call Internet Governance. In the words of Laura DeNardis, Internet Governance “can be generally defined as the administration and design of the technologies that keep the Internet operational and the enactment of policy around these technologies. (DeNardis et al. 2020)

It is all about what is going on the Internet

The previous picture of Internet Governance, while accurate, is rather over simplified. It is true that keeping the Internet operational is a common interest and thus a common goal of all the involved actors, but this is all that is there only when we look at the bigger picture. The devil, however, is in details, and the details are all about what goes on the Internet. Technically speaking, there is only data packets, packages of 1s and 0s traveling through the network. But in these 1s and 0s is encoded anything that can be digitized, which now is almost anything you can think of. It happens that everybody has as much interest in keeping at least some of these data packets from reaching their designated destinations. Examples are numerous, but we can mention sensitive data that one or more parties don’t want them exposed, copyrighted data whose rights holders don’t want them circulated out of their own channels, data that, in themselves, constitute crimes against individuals, institutions, or states, and the list can go on endlessly. Given the borders-crossing nature of the Internet, almost all the traditional governance tools are not satisfactorily effective in handling the cases where unwanted data packets wander freely through the network. New governance tools are needed, most of them can only be effective when multiple actors agree on their use policies. Such tools are also distributed across many fields and areas of action, ranging from International Relations and diplomacy, right down to the policies regulating the specific design and use of data transfer protocols and technologies.

The definition of Internet Governance we introduced in the previous section is too abstract and limited. A definition of Internet Governance that may better capture a more complex picture is “the development and application by governments, the private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decisionmaking procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet. (Kurbalija 2016) This is a much higher level definition that takes into account the Who i.e. involved actors, and the What, i.e. the tools these actors use for Internet Governance. The efforts of these actors and the policies they negotiate and establish revolve around thousands of control points through which the Internet can be governed. These points of control can be categorized as per their functions as follows:

  • Administration of critical Internet resources such as names and numbers.

  • Establishment of Internet technical standards (e.g., protocols for addressing, routing, encryption, compression, error detection, identity systems, authentication).

  • Coordination of access and interconnection (e.g., IXPs, net neutrality, access policies).

  • Cybersecurity governance.

  • The policy-making role of private information intermediaries (e.g., via platform governance, algorithmic ordering, terms of service, computational ordering and decisions by artificial intelligence, and policies about security, speech, reputation, and privacy).

  • Technical architecture-based intellectual property rights enforcement.

These functions outline the different issues that different actors deal with under the broad title of Internet Governance. These issues will be the focus of the next discussion throughout the parts of this series. The way they will be grouped and approached however will deviate from the above outline according to the purpose and intents of explained in the next section.

Intents and Purposes

This series of articles intends to provide a comprehensive introduction to Internet Governance, approached from the Internet users’ perspective. This user while increasingly dependent on the network in different aspects of his/her life, has turned into a citizen in a trans-national community whose daily life is affected by the different policies set and implemented by a great number of actors. All of this happens under the large title of Internet Governance. What concerns us is to introduce a clear view of the extant policies which create an environment affecting the daily use of the Internet. Also, we focus on the current state of the negotiation trajectories of different actors around modifying current policies or creating new ones, and how this could reflect on use of the Internet and its various applications. A special care will be directed to the protection or violation of users’ fundamental rights and freedoms practiced through the Internet.

Previous events have proved that if a large mass of Internet users agreed on a unified stance, they have enough power to modify important policies. In some of these events, big Internet companies were able to mobilize users to pressure the decision makers to pass or stop legislation that affects the working of the Internet. The most prominent example is the 2012 mobilization against the SOPA and PIPA laws, whose measures threatened users’ privacy and right to free expression. Users’ protests and sites boycotts managed to suspend the discussion of both laws in the Congress. (DeNardis 2014; Kurbalija 2016) In this series we argue that Internet users’ can obtain collective tools that make them an independent and effective Actor in negotiating the modification and creation of Internet Governance policies, which would put their agenda on the negotiation table and guarantee that any new policies won’t hurt their rights and interests. The road toward creating such tools might be long, but the necessary start is to have as large number as possible of Internet users who are aware of how it is managed and controlled. This kind of knowledge is what this series seek to provide.

This series will deal with several main issues of Internet Governance. In each of these issues there are different roles for three groups of actors, whose interests, tools, and current weight varies as per each issue. It is important to briefly outline them:

  • State Governments and their joint endeavors: In the time that state governments recognize the great importance of the Internet as a main catalyst of global and domestic economies, they have major problems with losing control over such a large and unprecedently open domain. These governments discovered that the governance tools available through their domestic legislation aren’t good enough for protecting their interests either achieved through or threatened by the Internet. Thus they started to get involved in joint efforts for imposing their visions on Global Internet Governance. The division of these states between the developed North and developing South leads to conflicting interests in many issues. They also have different visions based on how democratic their regimes are and how much they respect their citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms.
  • Private sector companies: big tech companies, and a lot of smaller ones, working in access service provisions, and Internet infrastructure, have a large power due to their control of a large ration of Internet control points. This power is under incisive pressure by state governments either individually or collectively under the umbrella of the United Nations. Companies use their economic weight, and sometimes their ability to mobilize the support of Internet users, trying to preserve their power and protect their economic profits. They make sure that their voices are never absent in any international Internet Governance framework.
  • Civil Society: in a more comprehensive definition, civil society here refers to independent non-profit organizations and institutions, and popular movements that aren’t under direct state governments control. Civil society actors generally seek the protection of Internet users’ rights and freedoms, guaranteeing fair access to the Internet for all, and free use of its services. Some of these actors run several important Internet resources. They seek to preserve their independence and avoid governments interference, in the face of the wishes of many states to take these resources into their hands.

The Evolving IG Scene

While the term Internet Governance was only used recently, the technologies and policies governing the Internet have developed since the early prehistory of the Internet, and some of them were required for creating it in the first place. One can’t separate the history of Internet Governance from the [[History of the Internet]] itself. The Technologies, protocols, and standards of the Internet were introduced as the need for each has arisen. The policies governing the Internet have been, in many cases, embedded in these technologies reflecting the prevailing preferences among their creators. Later policies were crafted and enacted in response to issues arising from the actual developments and new patterns of use as the Internet matured revealing its potential opportunities as well as dangers. As both the Internet technologies and the policies around them were born, so were institutions of different kinds created to handle the operations required for coordinating and managing the further development of them. (Hörnle 2021)

This part explores the historical background of the evolving Internet Governance scene. It follows a brief outline of the Internet history dividing it into three periods spanning respectively the early beginnings in the 70s and 80s, (Adkins 2004) the commercialization of the Internet and its boom in the 90s, and the globalization of Internet Governance in the first two decades of the millennium and up till today.(Radu 2019) The brief exploration highlights the main issues related to Internet Governance that came to the fore in each period. In conclusion this article ends with a summary of Internet Governance features that has crystallized along the way in terms of actors and issues. These will be the focus of the next parts of the series.

The Early Beginnings

The early concepts and technologies that made the Internet possible and led to its creation were also decisive in shaping it. The concept of a distributed network preceded any actual implementation of it through networking. This concept was promoted by Paul Baran, a researcher at an American think tank named RAND, in the early 60s. Baran argued that only a distributed communications network can be reliable enough to ensure that the military command and control communications continue under the circumstances of a nuclear war.

Baran also developed the idea of Packet Switching and Dynamic Routing, that both Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf used to create the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), in 1973. Kahn and Cerf worked for US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) a project funded by the US Department of Defense (DoD). In 1977 the TCP was used by ARPANET, the ancestor of the Internet we know today. A year later the Internet Protocol (IP) was added, and thus the infrastructure of the true Internet was emerging.

In 1983 the Internet was truly born, when a plan for migrating 400 hosts of ARPANET to TCP/IP was completed. In the Same year the Domain Name System was (DNS) invented.

As these developments took place, coordination processes that continue to govern the evolution of the Internet till today, have also emerged. Volunteered researchers cooperating with the ARPA project started the process of RFCs, to coordinate their networking related research. RFCs became the tool for gaining consensus over new Internet-related protocols and standards, long before the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), that still uses it as its standard decision-making procedure, was created in 1986.

The first body with some sort of a central authority over the workings of the Internet was the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which for around thirty years up to 1998, was not actually institutionalized, but referred only to a set of functions that were administered by Jon Postel, a computer scientist and one of the Internet fathers. After Postel’s death in 1998, IANA became a subsidiary of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

IANA’s functions are examples of the Internet Governance procedures that evolved as the Internet’s importance and potentials have. The long process of separating the administration of crucial functions like assigning root IP addresses, and [[Domain Name System|DNS]] names, from the direct or indirect control of the governmental agencies of the US, has witnessed a growing struggle that intensified and drew the attention of more and more actors with time.

The main features of Internet Governance in the early decades are: being related to technical matters concerning protocols and standards; the management of technical details of the network by academics and researchers who created protocols and standards, and coordinated their approval and establishment through mainly loose procedures that either came under the supervision of independent organizations like the IETF and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), or continued to managed by individuals throughout this period, like IANA’s functions; and lastly the increasingly criticized involvement of the US government in supervising key internet technical resources.

The Commercialization of the Internet

Starting with the early 90s, the Internet became more and more commercialized, and much of its governance tools fell into private sector hands. The push for the privatization of the Internet Governance came from the US government, choosing to delegate some of the functions still under its supervision to private sector companies. This caused much friction with other states as well as with civil society organizations representing the interests of Internet users. This tension accounts for the whole history of [[Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers|ICANN]], starting as a non-profit corporation under contractual oversight of the US government, represented by the Department of Commerce, in the late 90s, developing a structure that is more and more open to the involvement of multi-stakeholders in setting its policies, and ending with the US administration relinquishing its contractual relation with it letting its Internet resources functions to come under the oversight of the Internet community.

The commercialization of the Internet brought to the fore issues of assigning domain names, the conflicting interests of trade marks holders, and the problem domain names squatting. Closely related were the long wars of intellectual property rights holder against the free exchange of copyrighted materials over the Internet. Last but by no means least the rise of Web 2.0 applications, and social media sites opened a whole set of issues concerning content moderation, human rights protection, and the legal responsibilities of information intermediaries. The famous Section 230 of the US Telecommunications Act of 1996, consolidated private governing by endowing intermediaries with the power to set the rules for users conduct over the Internet.

Almost all these issues proved unsolvable by recourse to traditional governance tools, especially the courts of law. Thus, all interested parties turned to the tools of Internet governance to seek protection of their interests. This by turn proved elusive due to conflicting interests among different groups in the private sector itself. For instance, media producers interested in devising technical tools to directly fight piracy, were in odds with social media companies favoring the principle of Internet Neutrality, that is for all data packets to be treated the same way without discrimination.

The rise of big Internet companies, their involvement in developing new Internet protocols, standards, and applications, and the global border-crossing nature of the Internet, account for the increasing weight of the private sector actors in any multi-stakeholder’s initiative for Internet Governance, up till now. This fact however causes the continuing tension between a large number of states, usually using the intergovernmental organizations like the UN and its bodies for voicing their disapproval of the status quo of the private sector led multi-stakeholder’s processes for Internet Governance, on one side, and on the other the big tech companies, the western states, and most civil society organization favoring sustaining the multi-stakeholders model.

Globalizing Internet Governance

The global internet that became a reality rather quickly in the 90s, drew the governments of states all over the world into the arena of Internet Governance debates. All through the first two decades of the new millennium the stakes of controlling the infrastructure of the Internet became higher and higher, as governments saw the Internet as both a potential security breach, and an opportunity for panoptic surveillance. High on the agenda of Internet Governance in these last decades are Cybersecurity, privacy vs surveillance, and the big question: who have the legitimate right to govern the Internet? A question that extends to the preservation of the principle of state sovereignty, and hence the whole international system based on diplomatic exchanges among sovereign states.

In 2003 the United Nations launched what became known as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The summit was held in two phases: in Geneva (10 to 12 December 2003), then in Tunis (16 to 18 November 2005). It attracted 11,000 participants in the first phase, then more than 19,000 participants in the second. Among the attendants were state heads, and ministers mostly from developing countries. The central issue discussed without reaching an agreement was the choice between intergovernmental control and private sector leadership. Russia, China, and most developing countries support a push toward intergovernmental control of Internet Governance. The United State, the European Union, Information Technology Companies, and most civil society organizations support a multi-stakeholders management of which means private sector leadership. (Radu 2019; Kurbalija 2016)

While neither of the summit’s two phases reached an agreement on relevant issues, the participants agreed that a forum for continuing the discussion of Internet Governance issues is needed, and thus the Tunis Agenda mandated the creation of such forum that was announced in July 2006, and its inaugural meeting held in Athens, Greece in November of the same year. The mandate of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was for 5 years. It was renewed first for another 5 years, and then in 2016, for ten years. The IGF continues holding its meetings annually, along with several different inter-session activities.

Actors and Issues

In their book about the IANA transition, Nicola Palladino and Mauro Santaniello voice their concern that “multistakeholderism is a fuzzy concept that has led to ambiguous practices and disappointing results.” (Palladino and Santaniello 2021) Specifically, as a legitimizing discourse, multistakeholderism can serve “as a misleading rhetoric solidifying the dominant position of the most powerful actors in different Internet policy-making arenas.” This is indeed the case. The multi-stakeholder’s approach to global Internet Governance while it promises a democratic environment where all actors may equally negotiate the future of the Internet, it covers up the real inequalities among the different actors, and practically helps excluding the most vulnerable among them, especially end-users.

There is no arguing that multistakeholderism is the main feature of Internet Governance today. It is highly contested feature for the above-mentioned reason, but this is only one side of a multi-faceted story. From an end-user point of view multistakeholderism give the almost unaccountable big tech companies a free reign deciding how the Internet evolves preserving and promoting their interests, usually on the expense of minimal protection of end-users’ rights and little insurance of their interests. On the other hands, multistakeholderism is the only defense line against governments gaining full control over the only domain where many end-users can practice some of their rights relatively safe from harsh governments’ intervention. For some this might be a question of life or death, literally.

In the current Internet Governance scene main actors are: governments, with the one of the United States still holding much more power over the Internet compared to its peers; the private sector with disproportionate weight in deciding the users’ experience and the future developments of the Internet; civil society with little to no say over either the agenda, or the directions of Internet Governance fora; and international organizations where governments exert a disproportionate pressure exploiting the one-member-one-vote principle. Users while indeed stakeholders, are far from being an actual actor.

The issues on the Internet Governance agenda today reflect the pressures each group of actors exerts. Most prominent are managing Internet critical (virtual) resources (ICR); jurisdiction over and legislation for the Internet (local and international laws); cybersecurity; and protection of Human Rights over the Internet. These issues will be the entry points for the discussions in the next parts of this series.


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