For years the technical standards of the Internet has been governed by independent bodies like Internet Engineering Task Force.

But Canada’s Internet service providers were warned Tuesday they have to participate more actively in such agencies if they want to prevent the open Internet from being taken over by governments.

The alert came from John Curran, chief executive officer of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), which oversees the Internet addressing system for Canada, the U.S. and a number of Caribbean countries.

Today no one needs a licence to put up a Web site in most countries, he told the annual ISP Summit in Toronto of the Canadian Network Operators Consortium (CNOC), which represents some 35 independent Internet providers across the country.

“It’s not obvious that’s the way the Internet will run in 20 years.”

He urged ISPs – in fact, anyone who supports open Internet governance – to find ways to get governments to participate in Internet standards oversight, but only as equal participants at the table with the private sector and civic groups.

The reason for the worry is a number of governments believe the way the Internet is run now either doesn’t meet their interests or is subtly under the control of the United States. The U.S. (and Canada) delegates some technical functions to bodies like ARIN.

The first evidence of this resistance was seen earlier this year at the World Congress on Internet Telecommunications in Dubai, when a number of Western nations including Canada refused to sign the final conference text.

More recently, the allegations from former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden that Canadian, American and British electronic spy agencies have cracked some foreign government Web sites and commercial services like Google has pushed their suspicions.

Ironically, many see Snowden’s allegations as helping bring more light on what goes on behind certain closed doors. But Curran in an interview said they also give some governments “real and valid concerns” about the present structure of the Internet.

Curran said Snowden’s revelations that there is “widespread pervasive monitoring” of Internet users has given open governance opponents fresh ammunition to either put Internet governance in the hands of a body like the U.N. – where only countries are members – or to fragment into a number of completely government controlled national networks cut off from the rest of the world.

But, he said “it’s extremely important no government have a unique role in how the Internet is managed.” That means ISPs have to make sure their voice is heard, he said.

“We need a lot of people participating if we want to come up with a solution that’s fair to everyone.”

“You may not have a vote, but the number of people speaking matters.”

The issue of Internet governance will likely come up again at two international meetings next year: An ITU conference for developing countries to be held in Egypt in March, and the ITU Plenipotentiary conference in South Korea in October.

Which is why last month a group of governance agencies including ARIN, the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) issued a “statement on the future of Internet co-operation” calling for an evolution of Internet governance, but keeping the multi-stakeholder model.

In particular, Curran said, the relationship the U.S. government has with bodies like ARIN has to be broadened.

Also, he said, last month the Internet Governance Forum, which encourages multi-stakeholder communications for Internet governance but makes no decisions, suggested it could be open to working with governments on making recommendations on solving select problems – as long as governments sit at the table participating equally with others.

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