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Internet Governance for Sustainability

Sustainability is a difficult term to avoid these days. With that in mind, it’s somewhat surprising that last week’s European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG), now in its tenth year, featured one of its first workshops looking at the subject. But while the workshop focused on issues of energy usage and e-waste, the concept of sustainability raises some much broader and likely difficult questions for the Internet governance community.

The one thing that is abundantly clear after two days of workshops and sessions at EuroDIG is that “Internet governance” is hard to pin down—in one session you’ll be talking social policies for employment, in another, international trade arrangements, another will delve into industrial and manufacturing policy, while in the next room you’ll find a multistakeholder discussion on law enforcement practices. This is a natural reflection of the fact that the Internet has effectively infiltrated all spheres of human activity. But what then is Internet governance?

Practically, these kinds of Internet governance events are about sharing and consolidating knowledge and information—everyone comes away better informed and more able to contribute in venues where policymaking actually takes place (whether it’s national government, international standards organisations or elsewhere). But as participants share information across such diverse range of topics, we also see the emergence of a broader consensus on themes, approaches or priorities—not solid policy outcomes or even recommendations, but rather approaches for governance relating to the Internet. And sometimes it can be about changing dominant paradigms.

When we think about the Internet, we think of growth. More than perhaps any other area of human activity, the Internet has been defined by growth, graph lines racing “up and to the right” as we marvel at the speed with which the Internet has developed, spread and transformed our societies. Internet governance has reflected this—one of the primary motivations for the initial World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) discussions was that the Internet grows so quickly and dynamically that new processes and structures were needed for its governance.

That growth is also an underlying premise of the Internet governance community’s focus on “development”, an effort to address the inescapable fact that despite the rate of growth, the benefits of Internet access have not been evenly spread. “IG4D” (Internet governance for development), prioritising efforts to steer growth and development towards under-served populations, has been one of IGF community’s most important contributions to the global Internet governance discussion.

Looking at Internet governance in this way, and reflecting on the EuroDIG session on e-waste, I wonder if it’s time to consider a new paradigm, parallel, but separate to the idea of development: Internet governance for sustainability.

At the mention of sustainability, people immediately think of issues like e-waste, Internet energy consumption and environmental impact. But an Internet governance sustainability paradigm could (and must) go beyond these relatively straightforward environmental concerns to larger questions of how we can ensure the continued viability of the Internet and its benefits, based on finite resources. In doing so, it would inevitably raise deeper questions about the limits of “growth” in the Internet context.

Is our current approach to the Internet and its governance sustainable? A model that focuses on growth may not immediately appear unsustainable, but even based on the discussions at EuroDIG last week, I think there are some troubling indicators visible in the current trends. Consider just two:

  1. In discussions on the Internet of Things, many people have noted the problematic market dynamic whereby consumers demand (or applications require) cheap devices and manufacturers cut production costs in response, often at the expense of device security. The IoT continues to grow, but in doing so it jeopardises the security of all Internet-connected technologies. Meanwhile…
  2. With the exhaustion of the IPv4 address pool (and the slower-than-hoped uptake of IPv6), operators are increasingly turning to Carrier-Grade NAT, a technology that allows them to connect multiple users via a single IPv4 address. Growth of the user base can continue, but only via increasingly expensive and complex systems which have the added effect of making attribution and evidence collection more difficult for law enforcement (as discussed in another EuroDIG workshop).

In both cases, stakeholders from various sectors have raised the possibility of government regulation as a means to overcome these concerns—enforce security standards in IoT device manufacture, legislate to limit the degree of NAT usage by operators. But this leaves unanswered questions about whether such a “hand on the tiller” approach is the only means to ensure a sustainable approach. When placed alongside the kinds of concerns raised in relation to the proliferation of e-waste, the rapidly increasing energy usage of Internet technologies and even the rapidly growing number of applications chewing up radio spectrum for vital (or not-so-vital) communications, it’s clear that there is a need for all Internet stakeholders to “bake in” considerations of long-term sustainability to their development and growth strategies.

The overall question is this: should Internet governance foster an awareness across stakeholder groups of the need to consider long-term sustainability as a primary issue for any Internet-related development? This would be a paradigm of Internet governance for sustainability.

The question is broad, and deliberately so, and the operational, strategic or policy outcomes of such awareness would differ radically across the different kinds of areas mentioned above. But, as in the case of “development”, Internet governance can perhaps play its strongest role in setting such broad, thematic paradigms. How venues like the IGF will follow up on this question remains to be seen, but this should be something of concern to all Internet stakeholders.

By Chris Buckridge, External Relations Manager at RIPE NCC

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As admirable as your intent may be, ruddyconsult  –  Jun 21, 2017 6:12 AM

As admirable as your intent may be, you are referring only to the sustainability of the Internet. ICT4SD is about the sustainability of life on earth, that of the planet and its inhabitants.

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