Last modified on 20 June 2007, at 19:36

Internet Governance/Introduction

IntroductionEdit

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.
We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.
— John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, 1996

Almost a decade has passed since Barlow wrote his famous Declaration of Independence. Those were heady times. Netscape’s phenomenal Initial Public Offering (IPO) had taken place a year earlier, launching a thousand (often short-lived) fortunes, and apparently transforming the social, economic and even political landscape. Every week seemed to herald a new innovation, a new technology or company that appeared to vindicate Barlow’s utopian vision. Indeed, as Lawrence Lessig argued in his influential book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, the rise of the Internet was accompanied by a euphoria akin to that which followed the collapse of the Berlin wall [1] .

Since that time, the Internet has significantly matured. Today it is no longer a novelty or a curiosity; and, while significant economic opportunities remain, the get-rich frontier mentality of the 1990s is a fading memory. Indeed, for many users, particularly those in developed countries and urban centres, the Internet is so woven into the fabric of daily life that it is easy to forget just how special and transformative the network really is. In a sense, the Internet has shifted from the foreground to the background: as a global infrastructure that drives our economic and social life, it is today the engine behind many of the events and developments that we consider most newsworthy or attention-grabbing.

It is easy, given such conditions, to take the Internet for granted. But in fact, for all its staying power and phenomenal growth, the network remains in some senses a delicate, and even fragile, phenomenon. It relies on a bedrock of technical standards that are the outcome of a finely balanced consensus among users, government officials, business, and members of the disparate technology communities. Its global reach – what experts call the network’s global seamlessness – must always navigate the shoals of competing legal jurisdictions and various concerns over national sovereignty. More generally, a host of agreements, laws, treaties, institutions, technical protocols, and non-binding precedents function in a tenuous coalition to ensure the smooth functioning and stability of the network.

Put together, it is these various forces, which collectively determine what can and cannot happen on the network, that constitute the broad concept of Internet governance. In what follows, we offer an overview of that concept, discussing its history, the issues at stake, and the various actors involved. One of the challenges, in any such discussion, is providing some conceptual clarity to what is often a nebulously defined field. As we shall see, there exist a multitude of competing definitions of Internet governance, and a similarly vast range of actors. Moreover, the issues at stake are so broad and varied that it is difficult to discuss them in any systematic manner, especially in a brief and general primer such as this one.

Section I, therefore, attempts to provide some definitions, and offers an analytical scheme by which to conceptualize the topic at hand. Internet governance, it suggests, can be understood through a metaphor of “layers” – a division of issues and actors into three broad categories, each of which corresponds to a different facet of the network. As the text explains, there exist many possible layers. This primer chooses to divide the network into three layers: infrastructure, logical, and content.

Section II addresses some of the specific issues at stake in Internet governance. It also discusses some of the actors – the bodies, institutions and fora – involved in these issues. In order to provide a certain amount of order to the crowded field of issues and actors, the discussion is organized by the previously mentioned layers.

Section III discusses an issue of particular relevance to readers in the Asia-Pacific region: the interaction of Internet governance and development. It attempts to show how governance decisions can have social and economic ramifications, and it suggests some steps that can be taken to enhance developing country participation in Internet governance.

Section IV returns to the broader picture. It explains a number of concepts, and evaluates some models for governance. Finally, Section V, the Conclusion, offers some best practices, and considers the future of Internet governance.