The Internet, as the best example of the advances in economic and political globalization, has developed a particular model of government. The model has been able to deal with the conflicts that inevitably arise in the face of disruptive technology and maintain its global nature.
Although the Internet is often perceived as a global public good, its critical resources – the infrastructure that makes the Internet function as a single network – are in the hands of mainly private organizations, which coexist with other actors in the ecosystem, including governments.
Let’s start by remembering what it is that keeps the Internet functioning as a technically unique network.
The Internet is conceived as a network designed to allow the interconnection of different equipment, with the only requirement being that the Internet Protocol (IP) be used as a communication protocol and an IP address assigned, which serves as a unique identifier for the machine. For a network to work properly and information packages know where to go, IP addresses must necessarily be unique and, consequently, must be managed centrally.
Thus, when we want to access or send content through the Internet, we must know the IP address of the recipient. Actually, IP addresses are translated, for example, into web addresses, easier for humans to remember. So that there are no conflicts, this conversion must also be done in a coordinated manner worldwide.
At the dawn of the Internet, the task of coordinating the use of IP addresses was carried out by a student at the University of California, Jon Postel, who manually recorded and annotated each new machine that connected to the network. As the Internet grew in size, the creation of a more scalable and global management system became essential. In 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was established, a private non-profit organization that still continues to coordinate the allocation and adjudication of identifiers that must be unique, such as IP addresses and domain names – web addresses.
Who controls the Internet
The question of who controls the Internet does not have an immediate response. The Internet has developed a very complex ecosystem and governance structure.
Governments and parliaments have, of course, a very important role in what we could call the socio-economic governance of the Internet, in the exercise of its powers to elaborate norms and regulate the functioning of economic agents, and through its participation in organizations multilateral organizations such as the United Nations (UN). However, the technical governance of the Internet – which controls critical resources and maintains the coordination of IP addresses and domain names worldwide – has developed with some independence from governments, or at least from most governments.
From its inception, ICANN was fully aware that its fundamental mission was eminently technical, but that its role transcended these issues and had political implications, and that, as the Internet expanded its geographical scope, it should strive to involve participants in its processes. from all parts of the world.
Therefore, ICANN uses an organizational structure known as multistakeholder or multi-stakeholder in which civil society, the technical community, governments and the private sector are treated on an equal footing. The multistakeholder model has been successful, insofar as it has managed to maintain an open and secure network operating globally.
On the other hand, the socio-economic governance of the Internet is tremendously fragmented and far from finding a solution to address the challenges it faces. Yes, it has consolidated a very relevant advisory mechanism through institutions such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which serves as a catalyst for debates. However, the establishment of solid mechanisms of transnational cooperation for questions of privacy, security, human rights or digital economy is still limited.
ICANN and the United States Government
That internet emerges in the United States is surely known by many readers. We could say that NSFNet, a network that created the National Science Foundation to connect universities and research centers, is the original internet.
With the creation of the World Wide Web, a technology that is built on the Internet and facilitates access to information for the average citizen through addresses and links that can be accessed through surfing, commercial internet experienced an accelerated growth from 1995. In this situation, the US Government privatized the NSFNet and delegated the management of unique identifiers of the Internet in 1998 to ICANN, an organization founded for that purpose.
However, the US government reserved a supervisory function through a contract between ICANN and the Department of Commerce (DoC). In this contract, ICANN committed itself to continue to be a non-profit corporation, with headquarters in the United States, transparent, responsible and multistakeholder.
The rest of the governments have historically participated in ICANN as an interest group more within the international community, represented in the GAC (Governmental Advisory Group). The GAC plays a very important role in advising the board on issues that intersect ICANN’s activities and policies and national laws or international treaties.
Although the role of the United States Government has been purely supervisory and has never taken action on the control of critical Internet resources, the vestigial power of supervision of the United States was uncomfortable for many other governments.
In 2014, the United States Government announced its intention to renounce its contract with ICANN as long as a mechanism was found to replace it and the accountability system was improved. Among the demands of the United States, the replacement mechanism should maintain the open nature of the Internet and the multistakeholder model. In other words, the solution could not be to replace the United States Government with a set of governments.
The solution adopted has been the creation of a new ICANN subsidiary legal entity that manages critical resources worldwide. The new formula has found great support from both the private sector and associations representing civil society, and obviously having had the support of the United States Government, which assessed that the possibility of a government or group of governments taking the ICANN’s control in the new circumstances was extremely remote.
The Governance Forum
That an international private non-profit organization has been successfully created and independent of governments for the management of critical internet resources does not mean that governments have been left out of the internet. In fact, the Internet has turned upside down the system of political organization established almost 400 years ago around the concept of national sovereignty.
Already in 2003, the start of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) channeled the concerns of governments around the world for the questions that arose about the governance of a network every time more global This summit was sponsored by the United Nations in two phases, in 2003 and 2005, held respectively in Geneva and Tunisia.
The WSIS culminated with the well-known Tunis Agenda and the agreement to celebrate every year, under the auspices of the United Nations, an Internet governance forum, the IGF, which would bring together the different interest groups and serve as an open and decentralized space for the debate on policies that favor the sustainability and solidity of the Internet. The initial mandate entrusted to the UN was 10 years, which was renewed in 2015 for another ten years.
The IGF has been a good platform for debate on the many challenges that the internet has generated, in issues such as the protection of minors, intellectual property, privacy, security, the digital divide, and so on. However, there is a growing vision within the global multistakeholder community that believes that it is time to look for mechanisms to generate more tangible results.
The Secretary General of the United Nations himself, António Guterres, said in the last edition of the IGF in Paris that “debates on Internet governance can not be left alone in debates”. And is that in recent years there have been a series of events that have made add adepts to such an evolutionary vision of Internet governance.
We could say that these events began in 2013 with the revelations of the ex-CIA’s Edward Snowden about the espionage programs of the United States Government. The massive espionage scandal was the beginning of the public manifestation of the magnitude of the battlefield that the Internet had been for geopolitics.
In 2014, Brazil – whose president had been the victim of the massive espionage scandal – hosted a Global Multistakeholder Summit on Internet Governance called NetMundial, whose objective was to elaborate the São Paulo Multisectoral Declaration with a series of fundamental principles on the Internet and a sheet of route to the future of your governance. Despite the non-binding nature of the statement, many valued NetMundial as a step in the right direction because of its multi-stakeholder format and tangible results.
The scandals are helping to boost the search for mechanisms for transnational cooperation and the coordination of standards on the Internet. Thus, the recent Cambridge Analytica case put the issue back on the political agendas. This scandal showed that the company dedicated to commercial and political campaigns had improperly used personal information from at least 50 million Facebook users to favor the Donald Trump campaign. In fact, in 2018 we have witnessed several calls to consolidate the efforts made over the years in the governance mechanisms of the Internet.
Another call to consolidate the efforts made in Internet governance has come from Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, who presented his project “Contract for the Web” during the opening ceremony of the Web Summit in November 2018 This document contains principles to which governments, companies and citizens from all over the world can commit to protect an open website and contribute to the development of a real “contract for the web”, which will “establish the functions and the responsibilities of governments, businesses and citizens. “
Among the latest proposals, it is worth mentioning that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who announced a “call for confidence and security in cyberspace” at the thirteenth edition of the IGF, which was held in Paris in November 2018. In his call, Macron coined a new term, innovative multilateralism, because “we need to invent new forms of multilateral cooperation that not only involve the states, but all the actors.”
The Paris call opens a new way in the search for a paradigm shift for the socio-economic governance of the Internet that, with the growing hybridization between the physical and the digital world, we could say that it is simply socio-economic governance.
However, there are important cultural differences and relevant geostrategic interests that will not make the road easy. The call of Paris has been signed by more than one hundred governments and more than a thousand non-governmental actors, including companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft, and all the Member States of the European Union. Among the non-signatories are the Chinese technological giants, the governments of Russia and China, and also the United States.