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Internet: Government Dominance or Governance?

In an age where the world has gone global in many forms and guises, the political attention is more and more focussed on national, populist issues, that arise from fear for the unknown. I can’t deny it: the future undoubtedly contains many uncertainties. This usually comes with a general public that’s afraid and in fear of things they cannot oversee. Thus it is easily aroused by a populist leader who feeds on this fear and throws flammable material on the already smouldering fire. In a time where leadership is called for, it seems lacking. The Internet governance discussion demands visionary leadership on a cross border level and it needs it soon.


The Internet is global as global comes. It totally transcends national borders and regulation. More or less it’s only disconnection that can make a state secure from the digital outside world. Thus it amazes me that global leadership towards the Internet is lacking still, despite the fact that signals are on red for quite some time.

ICANN and the EU

The answer is not in gaining more government control over ICANN as the EU Commission is speculating. ICANN is only one of the many parties that has a say over the Internet. The main issue should not be over a top-level domain name if it is security you’re after. It could e.g. be on which entity is allowed to register domain names and how does it deal with all issues around abuse of the system.

How should we interpret this EU policy document, as payback time as suggested by professor Mueller or as governments grappling for a form of control in the only place they seem to know where to find it? For sure it’s about Internet governance, but is it the sort of governance that ought to have priority in the light of recent events?

I have said before that discussion could be going along very different lines within ICANN, if people who are good at what they do are allowed to do just this, while at the same time recognizing and dealing with flaws in the system that are (only as far as it’s contribution) on the verge of debilitating it. After all it’s not the domain names or IP ranges that behave badly, i.e. hacking, phishing, fraud, etc., it’s the people using these resources in a way that was not foreseen. It’s them that have to be hindered or better, stopped. Here’s where very different actors have responsibilities in this cross border environment. And maybe not equipped, yet, to deal with this new role.

Internet security falling apart?

In a time when all security involving the Internet seems to be dissolving with the minute, to my mind there are a lot of different questions that spring up on what sort of activities a government or company wants or maybe even should (not) be developing on the Internet. I’m not filling them in. That’s up to you, but it is for certain that the overly optimistic, maybe even naïve, days ought to be over. Not everything that is technically possible on the Internet may actually be a good idea (at present). Even if it saves money in the short run.

Larger than a single government

Issues concerning the Internet are larger than each individual government. That is why it surprises me that the Dutch government focuses its National Cyber Security Strategy for 99% on the national level. (Well, it doesn’t in the present circumstances, but I’m sure you know what I mean.) The Diginotar debacle hopefully set that record straight. There is no national cyber defence short of disconnecting from the Internet 100%, nationally and individually. The national waterline defence of the 17th century is only good for one thing in 2011: short circuiting and thus making communication impossible for defensive action also.

Cooperation, cooperation, cooperation

Making the Internet safer needs a lot of different parties to cooperate. And most are in the private realm as the liberalisation of telecoms put the development of the Internet outside of government, including the rules of this game. Every day governments lose in not working with these private parties, is a day lost to the world. It’s not on domination, it’s about cooperation. Here’s the key to governance of the Internet. This may take some intensive listening, followed by appropriate action and maybe even some strong incentives where necessary, but let’s not forget what the Internet is: the greatest tool on earth for sharing data and knowledge, a beacon of light for democracy and freedom of speech. That’s what the western world is fighting for to keep and propagate. Unfortunately, it is also an unsafe place. This awareness should keep people and organisations from going there unprepared, just like in real life. People don’t venture into unsafe areas voluntarily, if they can prevent it. So why do they do so on the Internet?

The Internet can at best be as safe as the real world, that’s something that should be accepted, but at this moment it isn’t. Also this is a message that takes courage to tell in plain words: “No, I cannot always protect you”. The opposite seems true at present, things are made too easy for criminals, hackers and plain opportunists.

An answer? Cross your border

So what is the answer? Let me start with suggesting that all concerned dare to look further than their own border and take it from there. And whether this border is a nation state, commercial, ideological or psychological, it has to be crossed in order to tackle the problems the Internet is facing. Otherwise it’s not going to work and development will cease. The same may be the case for lucrative business prospects. It’s about time that parties meet each other halfway and face the problems, which are common problems, not individual. From this notion Internet governance should arise and dominance abstained from. This will take compromise, taking measures to accommodate valid concerns and, I’m afraid, probably some regulation to ensure a level playing field that will hurt the bad guys. Saving the Internet is not easily come by.

And hey, the politician that is able to ford these obstacles will gain his place in history as the person who saved the Digital Age. Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?

By Wout de Natris, Consultant internet governance

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Internet spirit still alive? Alessandro Vesely  –  Sep 14, 2011 11:34 AM

This seems to be a good place to recall how the Internet came into being, around the turn of the millennium.  What do physicists at ARPA and CERN have in common with developers of free software like GNU and BSD?  They abhor limiting human freedom, knowledge in particular, and are capable to work on a project almost independently of any compensation—which is not to mean they don’t deserve one.  Such spirit is our emblem, I’d hold.  It fosters cooperation, our species’ winning feature.

Good forms of governance are being discussed since the times of Lycurgus, but when the spirit dies they get corrupted and decline.  Perhaps, for some Governments, the Digital Age can be better saved by shortening their agony than trying to revive them.

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