Who is in charge over the Internet?

Disclaimer: This is a talk I was supposed to do at an event which was cancelled due to Covid-19. I normally write in Norwegian, but since this talk was supposed to be in English, this post is also in English. I have modified the text to be more reader-friendly, but the initial intention of this talk was never to be presented as text.

OK, so this is the ominous title of my talk, much designed to make people either curious or pissed off. No one is in charge over the Internet, right? Right? Let me take a step back before I continue.

When I wrote my book “Internett Internett Internett” – an introductory book about how Internet works, I spoke with many people. My background is from the social sciences (Psychology and Social Anthropology). I do not have a degree in computer technology, so I needed to get people to explain things to me. But I “discovered” Internet Governance on my own, by being a member of Internet Society (an organization, not just a fancy word for people who “speak leet”). Rather quickly I came to realize that while some of the people I talked with have a lot of knowledge of computer science and Internet technology, Internet Governance is not really a focus of a lot of these technologists. So when I was asked to do a talk at Hackeriet, and told to choose whatever I wanted to talk about, I saw an opportunity to lure more people into being aware of Internet Governance, and hopefully have more people engaging.

With all bold types and click-bates aside, this talk is an introduction to Internet Governance.

“Internet Governance” is an overly woolen expression which entails so much and then some. WSIS 2005 was a two-year long meeting by the United Nations*, and they came up with some definitions worth noting. What is Internet Governance? Well, all of the above. It is everyone concerned about everything concerning Internet-related issues.

* (Yes, this was quite crude, let me explain: The World Summit on Information Technology (WSIS) first met in 2003, and organized a working group to address some definitions etc, and then the whole meeting met up again in 2005. Also, it was the ITU (The International Telecommunication Union) who held the meeting. “ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies – ICTs.”)

This image from DiploFoundation is popular when trying to explain Internet Governance and the complexity. The building is not finished, and each floor has a main theme or two. Various issues, like data mining, net neutrality, media freedom, online gambling and so forth – are placed throughout the building. The billboard outside shows a vast number of agents concerned with Internet Governance. I like this image. Internet Governance is complex, and having a playful drawing to illustrate things are always positive.

Internet Governance is, as you might have deduced from the notions over, a lot of people discussing a lot of issues. These discussions are founded on the basis of rough consensus. This means that when ideas are good enough, or people are more or less in accord, decisions go into action. Internet Governance is not a dictatorship, nor is it a democracy. Internet Governance is discussion until people attending are sort of agreeing. Sooner or later things will change, and technology will evolve, so there is no need to be completely in agreement. By the time complete agreement is found, something new has already replaced the old.

Internet Governance is based on a multistakeholder model. This means that not one or two fractions of the society, let’s say government and business, are given exclusive rights to figure out what’s best for the future of the Internet). Everyone who has a stake in Internet, who works with the Internet, on the Internet, or against the Internet – everyone has a stake in the Internet, and everyone should thus have a say in what’s going on. No one is excluded, basically.

Internet Governance is based on a bottom-up approach. Technology is at the bottom of everything concerning Internet. You can’t sit and decide “now everyone have to use one IP-address”, when there is not enough IPv4-addresses to use. Technology is the base line, and people closer to that baseline must be the ones who have the final word. Having someone saying “from now on, everyone who uses Internet must first register on the web” will just make people find solutions on how to not be registered. Ideas may come from some sort of authority, but actual change must come from the community itself. From end users, hands on technologists, entrepreneurs, and so forth.

Having a body decide issues based on rough consensus. multistakeholder and bottom up will not be able to make decisive, final and specific decisions. Internet Governance is a continuous discussion concerning various issues. Going back to the WSIS: That working group in between those two summits was called WGIG, and in their report, they described what Internet Governance should focus on, in four main “clusters”:

Infrastructure includes most of the technology in building, creating and sustaining the Internet. This means everything from internationalizing domain names to administration of root zones, and all between technical standards and peering-agreements. Security, safety and privacy concerns issues regarding use and misuse, and how to protect a reason for trust in the Internt, so to speak. Getting rid of those spammers. Intellectual property and trade is a no-brainer for most, but for those very high strung “Internet is all about sharing”-people out there, companies and people have a right to intellectual property protection, and we can disagree on to what extent one should protect these intellectual properties, but as long as Internet have existed, challenges concerning copyright and intellectual properties have existed. The fourth and last point, developmental issues, concerns capacity building and access for everyone, also in developing countries.

When we now have seen a bit at what are the scope og Internet Governance, let’s look at who and how.

Internet Governance is made up by a lot of organizations. In the list over, I have put in lots of technology-organizations which obviously is a part of Internet Governance here, but also stuff like “EU”, because legislative changes in EU makes an impact on the Internet as a whole – just consider the cookie-law and GDPR. I have also put in major organizations like UNICEF who focus on focus on children’s rights and the Internet and WTO who focus on how digital technologies are transforming global commerce. These types of organizations have a lot of weight, and their statements make an impact. I have also, as an example of what contributes to the agenda of Internet Governance, put down a well known anonymous discussion forum – not because the comments there are clever and game-changing, but because actions on anonymous discussions forums like this may push governments to form laws contra-productive to an open Internet based on cooperation, trust and freedom. Some of the organizations are highlighted, and I will look at them in more detail at the end of this talk. Stay tuned.

Instead of ranting on about different organizations, who is it, really, who participates in Internet Governance?

Strictly speaking, people from either governments, business, research, tech community or civil society is Internet Governance. This means that Internet Governance is not a fixed group or a complete setup. Internet Governance is multistakeholder, and by “multi”, they really mean multi. It helps, obviously, if you are a part of a larger group, because having the opportunity to contribute does not mean people have to listen to you.

So what power do Internet Governance hold? I named this talk “who is in charge over the Internet”, after all. Well, the expression “too many cooks may spoil the broth” is universal. The Norwegian equivalent expression is “the more cooks, the more mess”. And this is an apt expression for Internet Governance. There are so many perspectives and viewpoints, that trying to make “rough consensus” out of it all, is akin to utopian. Internet Governance is, all in all, a lot of discussions in a lot of different foras.

So whats the point then?

Let us take a short detour to look at what Internet is first.

This models depict three different sorts of networks. None of these are what Internet looks like. They are arch-typical networks, and Internet, living in reality, is somewhat between decentralized and distributed. Internet is definitely not centralized, so making a demand or a law just won’t work. Top-down won’t work. To be able to do change, all different networks who are connected need to cooperate. Which means a lot of… different people (understatement of the decade) need to cooperate.

In every talk I have, I tend to define Internet as all the layers of Internet, and I don’t just do this to show off all the fancy words I know, but I do this to stress to people that what most of us define Internet as, is only a part of Internet. I’m not going into the OSI-model of 7 layers of Internet, but paraphrase highlights:

A lot of people I have talked to, have defined Internet as one of the roles over; the decentralized/distributed nature, the cooperation between networks, the standards or the content. None of these things are wrong, is just depends on what you are going to focus on. When speaking about Internet Governance, you must include all these things in the definition of “Internet”. Too often, I see that people fail to do so. They try to control content without considering the decentralized, distributed network. They try to force legislations without considering the cooperation between autonomous networks, they try to create network solutions without considering the standards and so forth. When trying to argue against network blocking, which I have done previously, my adversaries think I only speak about content – because that is what they speak about. When being involved with Internet Governance, you need to have the whole perspective, as well as being dedicated to your field.

Back to Internet Governance.

There is a lot of power in being the ones with the knowledge in how things work. Various administrative tasks are grouped under the term “Internet Governance”, because there is politics in administration. Naming, for example – it wasn’t until rather recently (2009) that internationalized top-level domains were allowed, having previously only been open to latin letters. This seems, perhaps, like a small and insignificant detail, but that is because we use latin letters. Most of us here in Norway are bilingual (or masters even more languages). For Internet users who do not read or write latin letters in their native language, Internet and the world wide web would be off-putting. Remember the focus on developing countries and their access to Internet as a main focus of Internet Governance? This is a practical example.

Further, since Internet Governance truly is a massive amount of discussions, everyone who shares their opinion, possibly even not considering themselves as a part of Internet Governance, will be a part of that massive idea-hurling digital society which in turn shapes how we, everyone, relates to the Internet. Lawmakers may produce laws concerning parts of Internet, and how to solve these demands is also a part of changing the Internet Governance.

Internet Governance is an umbrella expression to include all tech-heads, business-suits, government hagglers, academic nerds and general individuals who wants to participate in this multistakeholder haven of bottom-up rough consensus.

Since there are a lot of organizations out there, I thought I should give a really short introduction to some of them. This is not a list of the most important, or the “coolest”, or the ones with the most impact etc. This is just some organizations.

ICANN is possibly the largest entity in Internet Governance. The mission of ICANN is to coordinate the stable operation of the Internet’s unique identifier systems. Translated to normal language; ICANN administrate the naming and numbers of Internet. Naming is basically various top-level domain names, like .org, .net, .info and so on. These top-level domain names exists because ICANN approved them, on the basis of lots of discussions (and a highly expensive application round). ICANN (through IANA) also administers Internet numbers, like IP-adresses, by allocating these resources further “down the line”. In addition, ICANN coordinates the operation and evolution of the DNS’s root name server system. I’m not going into what root servers are now, but they are extremely important to make Internet work.

Every year, ICANN holds this massive meeting, which is free to attend, in various locations world wide. ICANN consists mainly of people “in the business”. ICANN has a lot of advisory groups and connected interests. They are governed by a board of elected individuals, and different groups and forums consisting of more or less selected people.

To participate in ICANN, and if you are not naturally a part of any other of the massive amount of advisory groups, ICANN also have a “all the rest”-grouping, called At-Large. Individuals from Civil Society comes under this, as the advisory groups mostly are people who work with domain names, or governments, or the technical community. The At-Large group could obviously become rather large, so it is divided into regional groups. The European at-large Organization is called EURALO.

IETF is the standards-organization of the Internet. Their mission is to “make Internet work better by producing high quality, relevant technical documents that influence the way people design, use, and manage the Internet.” These documents, Request for Comments – RFCs, describes everything from how technology works to what IETFs role is. The RFC are generally called “standards”, and are the backbone of how Internet is connected. One of the most important philosophies of IETF is an open Internet, where all the information about how things are connected should be accessible to all. Most of the activity of IETF is organized in working groups online. There are no formal member lists or membership fee, everyone who is interested may participate.

W3C is another organization who focus on standards, but W3C is an organization which focuses on the World Wide Web. Their mission is to “lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure the long-term growth of the Web.” There is a membership fee. The organization was formed by the legendary sir Tim Berners-Lee who invented how the Web could work, and decided to just let the knowledge be public – thus being maybe the one person who made sure the Internet got it’s popularity. W3C is highly involved with research activities.

RIPE NCC is a coordination centre for allocation of IP-addresses. RIPE NCC is a regional Internet registry (RIR), one of the recipients of the IP-addresses allocated from IANA. They are also the administrative nexus of the independent discussion forum RIPE (RIPE79, RIPE80 and so forth). These meetings happens usually twice a year. Tickets for the RIPE-meetings have various prices (student-ticket, day- or week-ticket), but practically all of the presentations are available online at the website after the meeting. Between the different meetings, people are welcome to participate in online working groups. Worth noting is also that the RIPE-meetings offer childcare in cooperation with Holiday Sitters for attendees.

Internet Society (ISOC) is an organization for people who use Internet. End users. The mission is to “support and promote the development of Internet as a global technical infrastructure, a resource to enrich people’s lives, and [to be] a force for good in society.” The organization is open to all, and organized in geographical chapters. Some chapters have a membership fee, some do not. The Norwegian Chapter of Internet Society does not have a membership fee. The organization was originally formed as a legal umbrella-organization to protect the work of IETF, leaving IETF to do their technical stuff, and having ISOC as a shield around them. The ISOC dabbles in various issues such as Internet blocking and filtering, infrastructure, availability etc. Something for everyone. (As a side-note, this organization was what introduced me to Internet Governance).

I included the World Economic Forum in this short, not complete list of organization in Internet Governance, to show the variations of organization. The WEF is a foundation who arrange an annual meeting, usually in Davos. Their main concern is the public-private cooperation. This is an organization for super-rich companies and government leaders. Not something everyone may participate in. But they have som really interesting papers concerning Internet coming out every now and then, and one of their project, in which they have a continuous focus on, is Internet for all. The Internet for all-project boasts about having launched four operational country programs in Rwanda, South Africa, Argentina and Jordan, and attracted significant financial and human resources to support these country-level efforts. This is quite in line of the core definition of Internet Governance, and thus shows clearly that “Internet Governance” is not excluded to Internet-only organizations at all.

We are now at the end of this “written talk”. Please leave a comment if something is unclear, there are spelling-errors, or if you wonder about something else Internet-related you would like me to write about.


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