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The Governance of the Internet

Among the hottest topics at the Broadband Leadership Summit, which was held during the ITU Telecom World 2011 in Geneva, were the issues in relation to the security of the various aspects of the digital economy.

The key issue in relation to the governance of the internet relates to the many political, social and cultural differences between countries. This is one of the most contentious issues. At the current stage of global affairs there are countries and cultures that want to have direct control over this but the reality is that it is extremely difficult for individual countries to have such control within our globalised and intertwined e-community. Some individual control has been implemented by countries such as China, Iran and a few others but they do have a rather limited effect.

While it is easy for democratic countries to say that there is no need for political and cultural control, the reality is that many countries at this stage think differently. The internet can and will facilitate positive processes going forward, but the reality of the day is that it will take many years for that to happen, if it happens at all.

We all have a social responsibility towards the governance of the Internet, but only through dialogue will we be possible to understand each others concerns and address them in an effective and appropriate way without undermining the openness of the Internet.

We cannot start from scratch

Given the current extent of the internet, plus the enormous economic and social importance of it, linked to the equally enormous growth in services and applications that are now carried over it, e-security and e-governance will need to take the current situation into account.

The genie is already out of the bottle and trying to put it back is simply impossible, as it is equally impossible for countries to rely on national protective arrangements alone. The nature of the internet is that there is no option but to continue to develop e-governance along rather messy lines and improve that situation as we go along, through more collaboration.

Collaboration is the only option

At the conference David Kanamugire, the advisor to President Paul Kagami of Rwanda(co-chair of the UN Broadband Commission), passionately defended an open internet approach and indicated that leaders should approach these problems in a more positive way. The internet is already a collaborative environment and no single party or government can solve these issues alone. There is no alternative—everybody will have to cooperate.

All the current international organisations need to be involved in this—the UN, UNESCO, ITU, ICANN, ISOC and others. As national policies, regulations and cultures are not aligned; regional cooperation is one of the ways forward for cooperation. This is happening in Europe, the Gulf countries, and a new group of countries inEast Africahas recently been formed to do the same.

The existing default multi-stakeholder approach through which the internet has grown is currently the best way forward, enabling equal participation without benefitting one group or country over another. Once these levels of cooperation mature and trust starts to be built up further international cooperation will become easier.

While not all countries are yet convinced that this will deliver the solution, the message from the Summit was very clear—there is no other option and any attempt by individual countries to regulate the internet on their own will fail.

Of course it would help if the international bodies started to cooperate better with each other. At the moment it often looks as though some of them are more interested in protecting their own turf than in cooperating. In particular ICANN is worried that the ITU wants to ‘take control of the internet’. I don’t believe this is the case—on the contrary, the ITU did not become involved in the internet in the first place and that is perhaps a major reason why the internet has seen its spectacular growth. It would be absolutely impossible to wind that clock back.

On the other hand, many countries perceive ICANN to be too much dominated by the USA, already with a few events in the past where the USA has used its internet dominance to interfere with the internet. Many countries are very worried about that situation and do not believe enough progress is taking place to allay their concerns.

These are genuine global concerns that no individual organisation can address on its own, so collaboration is key—it is essential. If we fail to collaborate more individual bandages are going to be applied to the governance of the internet, and that will only lead to increased e-warfare and cybercrime, which is certainly not the best way forward.

Organisations need to start talking far more seriously about cooperation. They can only do that by sitting around the table and listening to each other. Once that happens trust can be built between the parties and this trust is essential if the world wants to make serious progress on the issues of e-security and e-governance.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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