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The “Internet of Things,” the Internet and Internet Governance

As the second Internet Governance Forum approaches, it is an appropriate moment to take stock of how the Internet Governance dialogue has evolved since the conclusion of the WSIS Summit in 2005. One year after the first IGF in Athens, it is clear that government, industry and civil society stakeholders are still grappling over the direction and focus of the IGF. For skeptics who view the IGF as little more than a talk shop that kicked the Internet Governance “can” down the road five years, the evolution of this dialogue is of minor consequence. For those who view the IGF as something more, it is clear that the IGF dialogue will indeed evolve and, along the way, will impact the conceptual approach governments take to the Internet itself. There is little doubt that some governments will choose to borrow concepts from the IGF when developing law and policy and will ultimately apply them to the Internet within their respective jurisdictions. Given the global nature of the Internet, this should be a fundamental concern.

While this important dialogue about the Internet continues at the IGF in Brazil next month, another no less important debate is emerging with regard to RFID technology and the so-called “Internet of Things.” The Internet of Things is a term coined to describe a future ubiquitous sensor network that collects commercial and personal data in public and private settings created, in part, through the rollout of RFID technology. The Internet of Things, according to some, is defined by the ability of things or devices to communicate and interact with each other. An ITU Internet Report from 2005 forecasts that with the implementation of RFID, “[c]onnections will multiply and create an entirely new dynamic network of networks—an Internet of Things.” Questions have arisen about what governance principles should apply to the Internet of Things and analytical reference to IGF governance concepts will inevitably be made.

Although RFID is not a new technology, supply chain and consumer-based implementations remain at a relatively nascent stage. Since RFID implementations are occurring primarily in the business supply chain and not yet at consumer points-of-sale, one must ask what the “Internet of Things” actually is today and what, if any, governance principles should be applied. More importantly, before applying governance principles, it is necessary to examine the nature of the various RFID networks that would constitute the Internet of Things. Depending on their architecture, security and modes of interconnection, emerging RFID networks between commercial entities could be considered “private networks” or “closed user groups,” (Private networks utilizing TCP/IP are addressed in RFC 1918 which likewise recognizes these distinctions between private and public networks). Private networks and closed user groups are generally exempt from traditional telecommunications regulations since they do not interconnect with the “public telecommunications network” or other open, public networks like the Internet. In some contexts, the question of whether a private network is subject to a regulatory obligation actually turns on the manner in which the private network interconnects with the public network. Given these important distinctions, it would be premature to apply less than fully conceived IGF governance concepts to one constituent network aspect of a yet to be realized Internet of Things.

It is important that all stakeholders exercise great care in addressing questions of governance, policy and regulation as the Internet evolves. Common agreement on terminology and concepts is necessary and a sound understanding of the Internet itself by all stakeholders cannot be assumed. For example, a great deal of focus in the IGF remains on “critical Internet resources” which, to date, has meant domain names, root servers and IP address administration. The Internet is obviously much more than these three important elements and a holistic view of the Internet within the IGF is necessary before governance questions can be properly framed. If the IGF dialogue is to provide analytical building blocks for application of governance principles to new technologies and evolving networks, there is a premium on the IGF dialogue getting the conceptual framework right. If the IGF becomes nothing more than a Chinese menu for governments to select a preferred “governance point-of-view” to apply to the Internet of today or tomorrow, then the IGF, like the WSIS before it, will become another opportunity missed.

By Brian Cute, Chief Executive Officer, .ORG, The Public Interest Registry

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Jeremy Malcolm  –  Oct 17, 2007 2:51 AM

To say that

There is little doubt that some governments will choose to borrow concepts from the IGF when developing law and policy and will ultimately apply them to the Internet within their respective jurisdictions. Given the global nature of the Internet, this should be a fundamental concern.

seems to be a non-sequitur.  Isn’t that the very point of the IGF?

On the other hand I agree with you if you simply mean that the IGF’s deliberations need to take place with a shared background of understanding of technical and conceptual Internet governance issues.  That is the reason why a synthesis paper of contributions from all stakeholders has been prepared, and why a panel of experts begins each plenary session.

Is this sufficient?  Probably not, which is why many stakeholders have contended that the IGF needs to reorient its activities to include an ongoing intersessional programme of discussion and capacity building, rather than being a solitary annual meeting.  An important part of this involves creating a supportive online environment for education and debate.

The Online Collaboration Dynamic Coalition has just created such a site at http://igf-online.net (which supersedes the currently-broken igf2006.info site from last year).  Although the new site is currently rather devoid of content, it is a grassroots effort designed to fill a void in the Secretariat’s arrangements for the Rio IGF meeting and the IGF’s ongoing activities.

Please check it out!

Alessandro Vesely  –  Oct 18, 2007 10:17 AM

There appears to be a leap between the governance of the Internet and the RFID deployment: the governance of radio (and microwave) frequencies. Otherwise, RFIDs can be considered just like sensors, digital cameras, et cetera, that can be connected to the Internet for specific purposes without implying particular governance concerns. Furthermore, all RFIDs that I’ve heard about are not netborne objects, thus would only be connected via suitable gateways.

However, relatively recent advances in wireless technologies may rise the question if frequency regulations deserve some kind of international governance. Here in Italy, for example, the government is silently procrastinating the auction for WiMax licenses, and will presumably fail to provide a low cost public network solution in order to maximize its income instead. “Ubiquitous networks” and market opportunities will suffer accordingly.

On the other hand, existing stakeholders already have too much rope for controlling internet services and related business, so that insisting that RFID and other uses of electromagnetic frequencies (TV/radio) should be governed by the same associations may offend generic antitrust principles. IGF should make sure it represents users rather than businesses, before making such claim.

IMHO, IGF should better its political ground and clarify that the Internet of People has sovereign power, as a first task.

John Berryhill  –  Oct 23, 2007 3:49 PM

There appears to be a leap between the governance of the Internet and the RFID deployment

Umm… no.  One of the objectives of the EPCGlobal RFID standards project is to have tag ID’s resolved through DNS.  If the project proceeds as envisioned, human-generated DNS traffic will be miniscule in comparison.

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