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Revisiting Internet Governance

You might recall that I played an advisory role to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in 2012 in Dubai. In the run-up to that event—as well as during and after it—I gave my opinion on the role of internet governance, plus an analysis of what was happening.

At that time I held a more conciliatory position on the issue, but you may have noticed that, in the wake of the Snowden revelations and the illegal NSA activities, as well as many other similar activities from ASIO in Australia and no doubt the Russian, Israeli and Chinese authorities, my position has shifted significantly. While at WICT 2012 the Americans and their allies positioned themselves as the good guys against the baddies from Russia and China who wanted to control the internet; but whatever credibility the USA had at that time has totally dissipated, and along with that the international discussion on the issue.

Yet there are still some NGO organisations arguing for some form of e-governance (or not). The reality is that it is most unlikely the discussion will ever reach such a high level of traction again, and this is all for the best.

With the benefit of hindsight I perhaps should have taken a more ‘militant’ position on the issue, like some of my international colleagues did at the time. The realpoltik is that in addition to all of its other aspects—such as its social and economic elements—the internet has become a weapon in the arsenal of the military and security forces. Of course, we all knew that this was the case but the abovementioned affairs brought this out into the open, and I think even the most militant opponents of internet governance were shocked by the extent to which these agencies were already using the internet and the other technologies it facilitates, such as data-gathering and data analytics.

So I am now firmly in the camp of those who support the notion that no government, or any international organisation such as the ITU or the UN, should attempt to concoct some sort of governance.

We also know that even if they try this, it can and will not happen. This is something that some of my colleagues such as Doc Searls and David Weinberg have been saying for well over a decade.

Their rationale is actually rather simple—there is no such thing as the internet. We have given it a name, but it is not a ‘thing’. In 2003 my colleagues described it as a voluntary agreement between thousands of network operators around the globe that facilitates the flow of data for their mutual benefit. For that purpose they have all voluntarily adopted a range of telecommunications standards and protocols that allow this to happen. No one signed an agreement. No one owns more than just their own network.

This also makes it totally impossible for any government or international organisation to exert any governance over this non-entity. In this respect it is also futile for any government, telco or ISP to try and filter, control or manipulate the internet in any way.

The only way for governments to exercise any control is to build a gigantic firewall around their national networks and operate this national network of networks as a virtual private network. That this can be done is clear, as can be seen from the case of China, North Korea, Iran and, in the past at least, also Syria. However, as is evident from China, there are still ways around the national filter; and at the same time the country would have to weigh up the consequences for their own economic opportunities in the digital economy of limiting the free flow of communication.

In a way the internet is similar to iron. It can be used to make weapons and it can be used to make ploughs. And both are happening so we will have to live with that. In the early Middle Ages people like Charlemagne banned the export of iron to stop others making weapons. We can safely conclude that he and others were not successful. And whatever governments do to control the internet, will follow a similar path.

In the end, the NSA and other spy agencies will come to a similar conclusion. By all means use the internet to catch criminals, child abusers and terrorists, but do it in a smart way—one that will be more effective, will cost significantly less, and will fit much better in a democratic society. It is that same internet that was used by the spy agencies that was also used by Snowden and Wikileaks. Thanks to the internet, the public reaction was swift and, dare I say, effective. At least, mass surveillance in the way the NSA was doing it, has now been declared illegal in the USA. They will have to be smarter in future and I am sure they will now operate in a way that is more appropriate to a democratic society.

If they don’t, there will be other Snowdens and Assanges. It is regrettable that the Americans are still on a witch-hunt for those two people so that they can burn them at the stake.

So, in conclusion, internet surveillance and internet governance is dead and buried, but some governments don’t know it yet. However all those still trying to find the holy internet surveillance grail, will eventually come to the same conclusion and their attempts will quietly disappear—hopefully to be succeeded by a smarter and more democratic use of the internet.

Unfortunately, in the meantime trillions of taxpayers’ money will have been wasted in building mass surveillance systems.

On the positive side, people such as myself, who are in favour of free speech and democratic principles and against mass surveillance, can relax because—unless our governments follow the path laid down by China, Iran and North Korea—the internet will never again allow such restrictions to occur.

Any illegal and criminal activity that utilises the internet can be dealt with within the legal systems of our democracies. No extra legislation is needed for this and any attempts to draft it based on using the internet for it will be futile as there are so many ways that can be used to bypass such systems.

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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Co-designer of the TCP/IP Protocols & the Architecture of the Internet



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