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Internet Governance: What Does It Mean, Anyway?

We need a common understanding of what it means—and what it doesn’t. Here’s one proposal for how to do it.

Ask anyone involved in Internet policy what “Internet Governance” means and you’re likely to get a different answer, despite the fact that a decade ago, after torturous negotiations, the international community agreed on a working definition for the term (if a vague one)1.

The lack of clarity has resulted in a policy space that appears to cover more and more subjects, with less and less agreement the more it spreads. In discussions recently on the /1net email list, I’ve seen proposals for an ‘Internet Governance Roadmap’ that includes delivering e-health initiatives, solving mass surveillance, and adopting new measures for taxation of Internet commerce—to name just a few.

Internet Governance cannot solve all the world’s problems—and should stop trying.

As a consequence of all this the association I represent made a proposal in its NetMundial submission built around a simple proposition: Internet Governance doesn’t have anything to do with the content that the Internet carries.

This may seem like a bold and new position, but I think the opposite is true: WSIS clearly separates the Internet Governance provisions from the development-related provisions which are, if you think about it, largely related to the content that the Internet delivers and not the network that delivers it.

We all recognise that the importance of the Internet in public policy terms has steadily grown alongside its economic and social impact. The Snowden revelations have redrawn the entire political paradigm of Internet policy as fundamentally as the Western calendar is divided by BC and AD. I’m convinced this makes a common understanding on two points essential:

  1. What policy areas are within the role of “Internet Governance”—and as a consequence, what fall outside;
  2. Where policy areas have a fundamental ‘Internet dimension’ that are outside of IG, how and when do those two areas intersect?

Without further ado, then, here are the four principles.

First Principle: the network and the data that it carries are in fact (and are to be treated as) entirely separate at the level of policy.

The “network of networks’ that is the Internet is made possible by a set of systems and services that interoperate to make it possible for any point “a” to connect to any point “b” anywhere in the world. These systems and services operate separately from the data that is communicated once the connection between points is made and consists of unique identifiers like Internet Protocol (“IP”) addresses and Domain Names; submarine and overland cables, satellite and mobile links; Internet exchange points; and software and hardware based security infrastructure implementing common standards (such as DNSSec) to ensure the point ‘b’ you reach is the authentic ‘point b’.

In respect of the network defined above, a Second Principle: no stakeholder may take measures that compromise the ability of the network to connect the greatest number of users at the lowest cost and as efficiently as possible. A corollary of this is that countries should not take measures with respect to the network infrastructure or services located on territory under their control that would impact neighbouring countries to which that infrastructure connects. This is congruent with similar situations in other areas of policy like river systems, where countries have for centuries agreed rules to ensure that access to rivers that traverse multiple countries takes place under this same principle.

The Third Principle is that the management of, and access to, data that traverses the network is not a subject of international Internet Governance. The understanding of what constitutes private information, criminal behaviour, libel, fraud, and many other aspects of communications are the remit of national law; defining these terms is an essential element of national sovereignty. Where international law addresses issues to create a global norm or process, those fora are best placed to discuss and agree measures for the digital environment as regards data in that domain. For example, with respect to human rights, the Human Rights Council and the instruments to which it relates address the online and offline aspects of that area of law now. With respect to the economic use of data, there are international arrangements and processes in world trade law such as the WTO, UNCTAD and OECD (for developing and developed countries respectively).

Finally, the Fourth Principle: Regulating the Internet, or technology more generally, cannot solve social problems.

The surveillance activities revealed over the last several months that are the subject of so much anger are spawning proposals in various countries such as obliging commercial operators to host certain kinds of data in given geographic locations. This will have unintended negative side effects without changing the relative security of that data, and without solving the underlying issue:

In an interdependent, globalised world, what cooperative arrangements between countries are needed to ensure they can carry out their duty to ensure the security of their nationals and territory?

That’s a profoundly important question, and it may be possible for technology to assist in implementing solutions, but regulating technology per se is not the solution.

This is not to suggest that a process to address the use or access via electronic means to the data of individuals and businesses by governments for national security purposes is inherently a bad idea; maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. My contention is that such a discussion is not about the Internet, and certainly not about Internet Governance2.

NetMundial creates an excellent opportunity to foster exactly the clarity we desperately need on the scope of Internet Governance. Resolution of these festering questions would make addressing ‘real’ Internet Governance issues simpler and less contentious. Ironically enough, it would also make the content questions easier to identify and help to reduce the so-called “orphan issues” questions: after all, if an orphan issue deals with content, then it is simply a question of looking to see whether it is being dealt with in some other policy venue (most actually are) and if that venue needs more engagement from the Internet community to help with its ‘Internet dimensions.’

1 That definition is “...The development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.” (Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, Article 34)

2 I have some thoughts on surveillance here on CircleID that may interest you in this context; the article can be found here.

By Nick Ashton-Hart, Associate Fellow, Geneva Centre for Security Policy

The views expressed in this article are his alone. Find him on Twitter at @nashtonhart.

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