Symi 2014: Toward a democratic governance of the Internet and more democracy for all, by Jean-Christophe Nothias

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  As a media editor and a co-founder of the Just Net Coalition launched in New Delhi, India, in February 2014, I was one of the many contributors to the NetMundial meeting in Sao Paulo and to the recent WSIS+10 High Level Event in Geneva. This paper is a short introduction to the very fascinating issue of seeing how we can introduce more democracy within Internet governance – and not just how to best use Internet in our democratic mechanism. At the present stage of Internet governance development, the asymmetric role of the US is coming under rising scrutiny and questioning. It is now difficult to deny the negative impact this asymmetric role over Internet governance has in terms of social justice and fair development around the planet. It is therefore any democrat’s duty to explore and understand why this new digital space is increasing inequities and injustice, thanks to its un-democratic governance, and how to best address these issues.

Creating a democratic governance for the Internet ecosystem

The Internet is transforming our societies at all levels. It has become a crucial part of the everyday life of most citizens, and is therefore being considered as a global commons. Still, this view is far from being shared. Private, governmental or public interests can all be met within the Internet space. So far the governance of this new public “space” has been driven technically, historically, and financially, by US hands. At its very inception, the Internet (Arpanet) was funded by the US. A large part of these generously distributed funds would come from DARPA, a US Department of Defense entity in charge of fostering innovation for military and security purposes, and from the private sector R&D budgets provided by corporations such as Bell, Boeing, or IBM. These “investments” supported international academic computer science grants, a vast majority of them at US universities such as Stanford, MIT, BU, and USC.

By the mid-nineties, the Clinton administration envisioned the magnitude of Internet’s commercial potential of what was until then, at least for its civil part, a working tool of communication for scientists. Al Gore was certainly a leading force in turning this innovative feature into a commercial weapon for conquering domestic and global markets.  By the late nineties, computer scientists had to give away control of the civil part of Internet they were handling, thanks to the new White House conception of Internet. An entire new framework of Internet governance was forged around new global commercial objectives. Such a new policy by a single government would be the most critical decision ever taken regarding the global and internationalized Internet. The original academic vision with a “public interest” bias and a “sharing” orientation had so far “protected” the Internet. In 1997, the domain name activity was exploding, and with it a new legal framework was putting Internet “governance” under both a direct US governmental oversight and a fast expanding community of digital giants. The US department of Commerce (via NTIA) singlehandedly took over IP address delivery management, one root-zone management, and domain naming management. The DoC delegated to the newborn IANA and ICANN the handling of these core functions of the Internet. Even though both entities were US nongovernmental organizations (incorporated as nonprofit), their respective missions were set under strict US governmental regulations.

In November 1998 – the year when ICANN and a new IANA were incorporated – all core functions were reset under a new general oversight and influence of business, industrial, and commercial interests. Many refer to 1998 as the “wrong turn” year in Internet governance.

Thanks to the many virtues of information technology and its capacity to aggregate data and offer fresh perspectives and exciting opportunities, Internet and its fellow worker, the Web, were soon to invent new industrial and service champions in a time frame never seen before, most of them US-born. What would take fifty years to achieve would take no more than ten years to create a new type of “robber baron”. Domination and monopoly were the new faces on the other side of the digital coin. Past the startup excitement period, a few corporations would soon reign over this new industry. As the tech digital sector consolidated, technical innovations would lose their disruptive character. Protecting the current state of the digital market and industry would become a new priority. The early days of the Internet buildup can still be compared to conquering a new Wild West, but today’s digital world story and the storytelling that comes with it have changed considerably to reflect an international statUS quo effect. The “if it ain't broken, don’t fix it" mentality has become central in the tenants of the Internet's discourse. A new conservatism has replaced the free-wheeling Internet founders’ early thinking – if not a philosophy.

Even though one can consider Internet to have been developed predominantly by the US, this innovation has become a global phenomenon. Soon, non-US telecom operators would join the club of interconnected networks offering each other interconnectivity. Following the same “pioneering” path that can be seen in most Internet issues, deals regarding interconnectivity would be set under secret commercial agreement, away from public eyes and accountability. Still today, the public and its representatives are unaware of deals relating to interconnectivity, or bandwidth agreements such as the ones we see with electricity agreements between energy providers of neighboring countries. If a telecom operator has little network to offer and few autonomous systems, its interconnection to the Net may be costly.

Asymmetry is now a constant “phenomena” in the international IT sector. This specificity is even worse in the US where mergers and self-distributed monopolistic positions among telecom operators, a “summer of love” as described by former White House advisor Pr. Susan Crawford, have increased concentration and reduced competition, artificially keeping subscription to access Internet for users at a high rate.

Before one can address the idea of a democratic Internet governance thanks to its public policy dimensions and necessities, maybe it is worth reviewing a few basic Internet concepts:

- Physically, the Internet results from interconnectivity based on networks being interconnected thanks to +40,000 Autonomous Systems (nods of connectivity) around the globe – far from being spread evenly from one continent to another. Note that some countries have few of these servers and are therefore subject to payment for accessing the “Net.” Obviously, the countries with such limits are not developed countries.

- Physical networks belong to telecom companies, whether public, semi-public or private. These telecom operators are not considered by digital giants as the real Internet players, even though they claim to gain more responsibility into the governance of the Internet. The Telcos complain about making huge investments in infrastructures and utilities for the sake of digital “kings of Prussia.” The digital champions claim that Telcos already get paid by selling access to users.

- Autonomous Systems belongs to ISP (Internet service providers), which can either be telecom companies or content and/or services corporations. Few like Google now have a vertical setting, handling for itself the full range of functions, capacities, and utilities.

 - Interconnectivity therefore results from privately interconnected or publicly owned outlets. As such, interconnectivity still belongs to none of those parts and to no one in particular, making it difficult to consider the idea of ownership, even though one player can definitely hold a dominant position and therefore more easily obtain what is “good” for itself. The status of interconnectivity tends to make Internet a “global commons” that should be seen as a zone of “public interest,” i.e. not governed by the rules of vested interests. Speaking of a global commons, such a space should be protected by appropriate regulations, something that sounds like a nightmare to the many enjoying the “jungle” aspect of the Internet today.

What roles in Internet governance can the private sector, civil society, governments, international organizations, and users have? And how can these roles, rights, and duties be democratic and inclusive of all parties to the eco-system?

As the Internet has become a vital social infrastructure that profoundly impacts our societies, everyone should be concerned. The Internet as a global commons and its governance cannot escape democratic principles and public policy regulations, which are necessary. Keeping the Internet free of censorship, vested interests, and domination means that its governance needs to embark on a new journey – one that can only be transparent, global, accountable, legitimate, and most probably innovative. This is good news for transnational democratic thinking.


Jean-Christophe Nothias

Geneva, June 16, 2014