Internet Governance 2012: Who should Control the Internet?


In the last twenty years, the Internet has had a tremendous impact on society and the term “Internet governance” was introduced. At first it was mainly used to describe the technical management of the Internet such as domain names and internet protocols. Nowadays governance refers to questions like "Do we all accept our responsibilities to safeguard the continued development of the Internet as a global, open and safe virtual environment? and Who sets the rules? In this blog I will give a few highlights of the current developments of internet governance on an International and (as well as on) an European level.

International governance

A global treaty conference, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), will be held on 3-14 December 2012 in Dubai. This under the auspices of the United Nations specialized agency dealing with telecommunications, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The treaty, called the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), signed by 178 countries, was developed at the 1988 World Administrative Telegraph and Telephone Conference and has not been revised in over 20 years. Its purpose is to facilitate “global interconnection and interoperability” of telecommunications traffic between borders. The regulations, while broad and high level, are intended to impose mandatory regulation of all aspects of the international exchange of telecommunications traffic – they provide a framework for international cooperation in which global interoperability is achieved.

The regulations also include a provision made for “Special Arrangements” (see Article 9). That text has been important in the rapid growth in the exchange of Internet Protocol (IP) traffic, the use of virtual private networks and the provision of value added services. The WCIT will take place in the context of worldwide discussions and formal conferences that are concerned with Internet governance. Internet governance issues and debates became prominent in preparation for the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society. Issues and questions were raised that touched upon sovereignty, security, stability, privacy, international coordination, intellectual property rights and on the question who should control this? The debates reflected the reality that Internet governance is not limited to technical issues, or to policy issues only. It has increasingly included important social, economic, and national security issues.

Some issues for a revised ITR treaty that ITU Member States have proposed thus far are countermeasures against spam (including combating spam) and related issues such as phishing, malware, malicious code, etc., dispute settlement, peering arrangements and the impact on costs of international Internet traffic, misuse of numbering, naming and addressing resources and subscriber identification, cybersecurity, including security of data, of signaling and traffic information, and of billing information, personal data protection, “New technologies” regulation, online child protection and Internet addresses allocation and distribution.

In my opinion one of the most important issues that should get the attention here is the right to access the Internet.The discussion on the right to access is an interesting case study of the impact of internet governance principles. This right to access could be related to the references to the right of access in existing collections of internet principles, including the very first article of the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition’s Charter on Internet Rights and Principles that lays down that “everyone has the right to access to, and make use of, the Internet. This right underpins all other rights in this Charter.” According to Internet researchers this can lead to the conclusion that the multitude of principles makes it inherently difficult to legitimately select any one of them. What is therefore necessary is a broader approach that allows the translation and operationalization of principles also called the functional approach.

European governance

On European level, the European Commission (Commission) has always played a leading role in discussions on the development of the Internet and its governance. The stability and security of the Internet is also key public policy issue for the Commission. The Commission has been working for several years on a system of internet governance entrusted fully to the private sector without government interference in the Internet's day-to-day management. In 1998 the Commission already cooperated with the United States in setting up ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). Completing the transition of Internet governance to the private sector also had been the explicit request by the European Union and its partners at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November 2005.
Together with the USA, the Commission established a forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue called the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). In line with the Tunis Agenda provisions the IGF did not replace existing arrangements or institutions. Instead it stands as a neutral, non-duplicative and nonbinding platform where a broad range of stakeholders can discuss public policy issues related to key elements of Internet Governance.
The European Dialogue still continues. On 14 - 15 June 2012 in Stockholm, Sweden, the 5th edition of the European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG) will bring together 500 representatives from civil society, business, governments, parliaments and international organizations to openly discuss the most pressing issues on Internet public policy. Some of these issues will be:

  • Are rules for Internet governance a necessity or a threat to a free Internet?
  • Who should set the rules?
  • How can intellectual property be protected without criminalising users and creators?
  • What tools do users need to protect their personal data?
  • What are the responsibilities of service providers with regard to the enjoyment of rights such as freedom of expression?
  • Are regulations needed to protect network neutrality in Europe?

All considered internet principles and rights have started to seriously influence Internet Governance over the last years. The developments have only served to accelerate the process and raise the stakes. 2012 should be the year of the operationalization of rights (and principles). In light of the normative goal of Internet Governance law, a functional approach can help translate the internet principles into practice. The year 2012 will also be important for the protection of human rights on the Internet. The 2012 session of the UN Human Rights Council will discuss the role of freedom of expression on the Internet. The IGF 2012 and the WCIT in December 2012 will both have to seriously consider the role of Internet Governance Principles and how they can be translated into practice. So hopefully this year we will have the answer to the question "Who should control the Internet?"!