Viewpoint: Changing the way the internet is governed is risky

Internet user
Image caption Many people may be unaware that the US Department of Commerce has the power to decide how the internet works

Governance is the establishment and enforcement of norms, rules and decision-making procedures. It is not the "law" as such, but rather a structure by which everyone agrees to abide, which can be captured locally by specific laws.

One of the most successful examples we have of governance on a global scale is that which affects international waters, where a United Nations agency called the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) handles the treaties and conventions defining how everyone must behave.

For the reason I'll come to shortly, I recently began asking people: "Who do you think should govern the internet?"

Most have replied that the internet should not be governed at all; it's fine as it is, and any suggestion that a UN agency might adopt the role provokes snorts of derision.

I find myself having to explain that the internet is already governed, even though most think it is not.

US control

It's important to realise that without governance the internet could not function.

Consider something as simple as web names and addresses. In order to avoid two different web sites having the same name, there is an organisation called the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which decides on who may use a name, although this is delegated down to regional organisations.

At present, the governance of the internet is effectively done by multiple stakeholders. What is less well appreciated is that the final approval on much of what is decided by these organisations is formally within the gift of the United States Department of Commerce.

This fact has remained relatively low profile as the Department of Commerce adopted an arms-length relationship with the stakeholder organisations.

However, the formality of the power structure was thrown into stark relief when the US government under George W Bush intervened directly on the subject of .xxx domain names, and then moved responsibility for certain naming from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (Iana) to Icann.

The fact that the US government ultimately "controls" the internet is something that many find an anachronism when the internet is a global phenomenon, and one which many countries' economies are becoming increasingly reliant upon.

UN intervention

Not surprising then that there is a growing movement to transfer governance of the internet to a body that is not under the control of any one nation. Also, not surprisingly, different nations are introducing their own agendas.

During a UN summit in 2003 in Geneva, the subject was hotly debated, but the US refused to relinquish control of the Root Zone file, which is basically the key to governing the internet. So entrenched were the positions that the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, formed the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG).

The idea was that WGIG would report on a solution acceptable to all but would move governance to an international body. I doubt anyone will be surprised when I tell you that the debate has continued ever since, and the objective of coming to some conclusion in 2006 looks no more likely six years on.

This has led to a great deal of frustration amongst the non-US political blocs, and 2012 looks like the year when the most powerful intend to bring the mater to a head.

Power struggle

The Russians, closely followed by the Chinese, are pushing for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), another UN agency, to be given responsibility for internet governance.

It looks increasingly likely that Russia and others will attempt to use an ITU conference in December 2012 to wrest as much control as possible from the US.

Image caption Russia, China and India suggest giving the UN responsibility for many aspects of internet governance

I suspect the final outcome will be a classic compromise where the US retains control of some key aspects.

Whilst I agree that governance of the internet should not remain with any one government, I find the idea of a UN agency being responsible daunting.

The UN IMO has been a success in enabling everything from free flow of shipping to providing a focus for fighting piracy, but the speed at which UN organisations converge on an agreement can be described only as glacial.

The internet requires altogether different timescales. A great advantage of the current governance structure is that it supports rapid developments, provided that the US Department of Commerce remains at arm's length.

Innovative internet

The internet has now reached a size where it tends to develop more like a living organism, and whatever governance structure is agreed needs to accommodate this.

Rather like a town planner putting down grass, watching where people chose to walk and then paving the pavements, internet governance needs to help the internet evolve rather than dictate how it must develop.

The one area in which this does not necessarily work is security.

So, all those who spend their time railing against any regulation of the internet should perhaps consider not "if" the internet should be governed, but "who" should govern it.

It's happening, and what we really need to avoid is establishing something that will stifle the innovation that has made the internet such an exciting environment.

Alan Woodward is a visiting professor at the University of Surrey's department of computing. He has worked for the UK government and still provides advice on issues including cybersecurity, covert communications and forensic computing.

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