Internet Governance: Past, Present, and Future
The internet, a global system of interconnected computer networks, is one of the most defining technologies of our time. Most aspects of our lives are touched in some form or another by the internet, including our economic and financial systems, our social interactions, our education, work and civic participation, as well as the many services we use to complement our lives, from entertainment and banking services to booking travel. In many ways, the internet has become an indispensable aspect of modern life – and peoples’ dependence on the internet and its ecosystem of services will only continue to grow.
Despite the constant and ubiquitous presence of the internet, most people have little understanding about how this complex system actually works. Internet users, particularly in areas with highly reliable connections, take it for granted that everything simply works as expected. Yet, underpinning all technical infrastructure, applications, services and content is a complex system of institutions, actors, mechanisms, and rules that govern how the internet works – termed “internet governance.” Internet governance is broadly defined as the processes that influence how the internet is managed – locally, nationally, regionally and globally. The United Nations Working Group on internet Governance (WGIG) defined internet governance in 2005 as “the development and application by governments, the private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programs, that shape the evolution and utilization of the internet.”
While it took until 2005 to reach agreement on this definition, the principles, rules, norms and processes that underpin the internet have been evolving for decades and will continue to evolve.
Yet, there are two key challenges that are posing a threat to the free and open model of the internet. First, states such as Russia and China are challenging the multistakeholder model of internet governance. Whereas the multistakeholder model places responsibility for critical decisions on the future of the internet into the hands of a wide range of stakeholders from the public, private, civil society and technical sectors, Russia and China seek more (inter)governmental control of the internet and are actively promoting a more authoritarian and illiberal form of the internet that restricts access to information and represses citizens.
Second, the free and open internet that is built upon the idea of largely uninhibited information flows is being threatened by efforts to control and limit the types of information accessible to users. This “fragmentation” has thus far mainly occurred on the internet in the form of the regulation of content through, for example, censorship or, in the case of overturning net neutrality, the erosion of the principle of equal access. Yet, there is also a risk of fragmentation of the internet, namely the introduction of new physical infrastructure that could threaten the existence of a global network and instead introduce a number of separate networks with little to no information exchange.