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Internet Governance: The Proof Is In The Pudding

“ICANN remains the frontier institution and the test case for global governance in the IT sector,” writes Zoe Baird in an article in the November-December 2002 issue of “Foreign Affairs”. Baird is the President of the Markle Foundation. Her article “Governing the Internet: Engaging Government, Business and Nonprofits” appears in “Foreign Affairs”, a magazine usually devoted to the discussion of American foreign policy interests.

The opening line of the article is striking. “The rapid growth of the Internet,” Baird writes, “has led to a worldwide crisis of governance.” On the surface, a serious problem has been identified. There is the promise of a fruitful discussion to follow.

The next line of the article, however, dashes any such hopes. Baird writes: “In the early years of Internet development, the prevailing view was that government should stay out of Internet governance; market forces and self-regulation would suffice to create order and enforce standards of behavior.”

The early years of Internet development are the 1970s and perhaps even the 1980s. These are not periods characterized by either “market forces”, “self-regulation”, or the view of “that the government should stay out of Internet governance.”

This was, instead, a period when the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) was providing leadership for the development of the Internet. This was a government office, and the people working in this office were, for the most part, researchers employed by government. This marriage of government and researchers provided the needed leadership for a research community first within the U.S. and then, including other parts of the world by the 1970s. The International Conference on Computer Communication in 1972 (ICCC’72) was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF has been created within the government of the U.S. to promote scientific and technical research. ICCC’72 brought together researchers from countries around the world who were interested in the creating computer communications networks and in connecting them to make communication and collaboration possible across network boundaries.

By 1973 there was collaboration between U.S., British and Norwegian researchers, all with some level of support by their governments. These researchers worked in government or academia. There was no belief in “market forces and self-regulation” as these researchers needed support from the research community they were part of, and from the government institutions several worked for.

One can raise the question: What is the result of losing any memory of the Internet’s development when planning the Internet’s future? What is lost by the Internet being portrayed as having no memory?

Baird proposes that now, as opposed to in the past, there is a need for government to play “a significant role” on issues of Internet policy. How is government to do so, she asks, “without stifling innovation”? She answers that this will “require government to operate in unfamiliar ways, sharing power with experts in the information technology (IT) community, with business and with nonprofit organizations.”

Where did the unique contribution of the Internet flow from? This was a result of an important government institution, an institution that can provide a prototype, a “best practice” model for future research endeavors, and for the Internet’s own future development.

The innovation that marks the creation of the Internet is an innovation due to the leadership of researchers working as part of government and functioning as government officials. This is the actual experience that made it possible to create the Internet. There are real models to build on, models from the actual experience of the Internet.

What is the effect of such amnesia on the continued development of the Internet?

Baird acknowledges ICANN failure to provide the needed model for the management of the Internet’s infrastructure. Yet she fails to explore the problem of ICANN trying to erase the memory of the Internet’s development from its radar screen.

Investigating the processes, and institutional forms that supported the creation and early development of the Internet would make it possible to understand what models there are from the Internet’s own past to build on for the continuing management of the Internet’s infrastructure.

Admirably, Baird acknowledges the problem with the new global institutional forms. The 1999 protests in Seattle against the WTO brought the problem to the attention of the world. These forms are being created to make decisions, without any means for citizens or users to affect the decisions. ICANN is an example of such a form. In contrast to the WTO and ICANN, the Internet and Usenet welcomed user participation in the decisions guiding their early and continuing development.

By learning from the actual traditions and practices of government leadership and scientific collaboration in the early Internet processes and by welcoming user participation and encouraging users to be active participants in guiding online development, a management structure with roots in the experience of the development of the Internet and of the online community can be created. Instead, however, Baird proposes a major role for certain narrow sectors of the business community and for a limited set of nonprofit institutions. Certain governments, she proposes, will be able to share management functions with these two other sectors. This will make it impossible for government to support scientific leadership or user participation in the affairs of Internet management. Instead certain narrow sectors of the business community will get triple representation, one in representing itself as the entire business sector, two, as getting support from certain government for its own business interests, and three, through certain businesses supporting certain nonprofits who prove themselves dedicated to the promotion of these few business interests.

Business and nonprofits will benefit when all users are able to participate in the decisions guiding the Internet’s continued development. This has been demonstrated by the way the Internet flourishes when users are able to contribute as network citizens (Netizens) to the spread of the Internet to all to support those who want to communicate with others around the world.

Nowhere in Baird’s article is there an accurate presentation of the role netizens have had in the Internet’s development nor of the lessons from this development that can point toward the needed path for the future forms of management for the Internet’s infrastructure.

Widespread knowledge about the actual nature of the Internet’s development and the participatory collaborative process that nourished this development, promises to provide a means to respond to the deficiencies Seattle protestors highlighted about WTO inadequacies. The Internet’s development is a roadmap for participatory development and institutional forms. Instead of learning from this development, it seems there are those trying to replace the Internet’s grassroots processes with the WTO processes that have impoverished so many and benefited so few.

It was good to see magazines like “Foreign Affairs” acknowledge the problems that ICANN represents for people around the world. It would be even better to educate readers in the ways Internet pioneers and netizens have solved such problems. This requires a commitment to support the spread of accurate knowledge about the Internet’s development.

By Ronda Hauben, Author & Researcher

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