The Internet

This is a huge year for global Internet governance. With the U.S. Department of Commerce’s plan to withdraw from its historic stewardship role of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, the global Internet community has been working to identify an alternative global mechanism that will ensure the continuation of an open and permission-free platform for creation and innovation. It was with this backdrop that the Canadian Internet Regulation Authority (CIRA) convened Canada’s Internet community in Ottawa earlier in June to discuss the current state of global Internet governance and what Canada’s role should be in the process.

This might sound obtuse, but this whole issue has become something of a flashpoint for a global ideological fight – and it’s starting to hit close to home for many Canadian companies and organizations. This is the sort of global debate that can create diplomatic scuffles. There may be attempts to wrangle control, to add layers of control and to moderate the revolutionary potential of Internet technology.

I’m coming at this with some skin in the game. As stewards of the .CA domain, we, and Canadians generally, have benefited from the huge opportunities created by an open, global and interconnected naming and numbering system for the Internet. The role that regulation has played has been approached with a light touch, and generally, that has served Canada well.

These issues of Internet governance – and the IANA functions specifically, have gotten tied up in the suite of other issues facing the global Internet community at the moment. From surveillance and cyber warfare to net neutrality, there is no shortage of politically-charged and headline-grabbing debates in the Internet space. At the Canadian Internet Forum (CIF), participants heard how separate these ideas are and how they can be addressed independently.

At the CIF, George Sadowsky, board member of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) made the distinction be between the “administration, policy and use” of the Internet. Basically, there can be a basic structure of technical rules that underwrite the overall system. That shouldn’t affect the ways that other actors can use (or not use) the technology. Surveillance is how the technology is used (something that state actors can regulate and control), but naming and numbering is a question of how the Internet is administered at a more basic level. There’s a distinction between how the Internet works and how it’s used.

This nuance is at the core of the Internet governance debate. It’s tough, but we need to understand it.

If this wasn’t enough of a complication for the Internet community, the process of governing how the Internet works is done through the “multi-stakeholder” process that errs on the side of confusing. It’s where all the parties that have a stake in the Internet come together to debate and create dialogue. States, business, civil society, academics and others engaged in the Internet can all participate in the process. It can appear messy, but it also has been amazingly successful. This is the governance model that has created the free and open Internet we have to today and can be credited with bringing the first 2 billion Internet users online. Academics are looking at how this experience might be helpful in governing other complex global problems like climate change and the U.S. government representatives at the CIF pointing to how they were starting to leverage multi-stakeholder methods to approach issues such as privacy that need buy-in from a broad range of actors.

For all its strengths, this model is sometimes not fast. Global teams of volunteers are working quickly to devise new accountability mechanisms and create new structures of reporting and authority that can get buy-in from the far-reaching Internet community. This is taking considerable time and energy, and the global Internet community may need several more months to complete their work and propose a viable alternative to the U.S. Government’s historic oversight of the IANA functions. This should not be viewed as a failure, but rather as the model working. Complicated issues are being worked out by a range of actors who are taking the time to get it right; this is how the model works.

The problem is that for those who would like to use this time of change to exert control of the Internet and re-tool it according to their more narrow interests in controlling what citizens can see and post online. This degree of nuance and the slowness of this process can form the basis of a toxic critique.

It’s critical that we not lose sight of the bigger picture. Sacrificing a free and open Internet for the sake of our inability to understand the issues fully and with nuance or our unwillingness to be patient enough to see a complex process though, would truly be a shame. We may end up with a global Internet we barely recognize: fragmented, closed and sluggish.