THE BLOG
01/15/2012 12:56 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2012

Internet Governance at a Crossroads

This post is co-authored by Phil Weiser.

Why is the Internet so extraordinarily successful? Your first answer may be "brilliant engineering," and that's obviously true. Your second answer may be "it's open, it's global, it's interconnected." Also correct. But perhaps the least understood or appreciated factor in the Internet's growth and success is its amazing capacity for self-governance, and its ability to resist the traditional tools of government regulation.

Because the Internet eludes the grasp of government, often by working around it, censorship of Internet speech has proven difficult, as the global tumult in repressive government regimes bears witness.

But at the same time, some governments believe they need to intervene to pursue legitimate social goals, such as combatting child exploitation on the Internet, or reducing theft of identities and intellectual property, or ensuring the security of networks.

From many quarters, there is pressure to inject more "government" into the Internet. We think the better course is for governments to understand, and cooperate with, the so-called "multistakeholder organizations" that have grown up organically with the Internet.

These organizations have acronyms like IETF, IGF, and ICANN, among others. They are open (to a greater or lesser degree) to participation by businesses and governments and civil society from around the planet. They establish norms and standards for the Internet and manage some of its most important resources, like IP addresses and domain names.

This form of governance - reflecting the principles and ethos that shaped the Internet from its founding - has helped make the Internet a uniquely open and ubiquitous communications space that promotes free speech and the unfettered flow of commerce. Its norms are broadly accepted because they derive from a fact-based, engineering-oriented, consensus-building mindset.

Multistakeholder organizations are diverse in structure and approach. They often lack a lot of the formalities we associate with governance. And while several operate under the umbrella of a global volunteer organization called the Internet Society, there is no overarching confederation or coordination of these groups.

As The Economist recently observed, "For something so central to the modern world, the Internet is shambolically governed. But sometimes chaos... is not disastrous: the Internet mostly works. And the shambles is a lot better than the alternative--which nearly always in this case means governments bringing the Internet under their control."

But there is increasing pressure by governments to do just that. India just called for a new UN body to take over responsibility for developing Internet policies, oversee all of the standards bodies and policy organizations, negotiate Internet-related treaties, and serve as an arbitrator in Internet-related disputes. And Russia is pushing to bring the Internet firmly under the aegis of the International Telecommunications Union, with a much more political and regulatory modus operandi. At the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), to be held in Dubai in November, this debate could come to a head.

The UN and the ITU have played important roles in global commerce and diplomacy, and those roles can continue - but they are not well-suited to swift and pragmatic resolution of issues as complex as the Internet.

Nevertheless, with half of all Internet users now found in the developing economies - India, China, and Brazil account for one-third alone - the system of Internet governance needs to respond to these social and political challenges. Nations that feel outmanned or overwhelmed by the institutions of Internet governance, or who simply view it as an indirect means for the U.S. to control the Internet, need to be convinced that the traditional model of multistakeholder-led governance is the right model for the Internet's future.

Working through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the nations that pioneered the development of the Internet recently reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of multistakeholder governance. But the entire community of nations must feel that it is a part of this global Internet community. In short, it is critical to bridge understanding and trust between multistakeholder organizations and those governments who remain suspicious or uncertain. .

Preserving the ethos and culture of the Internet, and the role of the multistakeholder organizations responsible for it, should be a goal shared by every Internet-related business and every member of civil society. To take the traditional model of Internet governance for granted would be a grave mistake. Protecting and developing this model will take considerable work and direct engagement by stakeholders, at the WCIT in Dubai and elsewhere.

The Internet community is notoriously averse to such complex but important policy discussions. It cannot afford to sit out this debate; the stakes are just too high.

Phil Weiser served as the Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation to the National Economic Council Director in the Obama White House and is now Dean, University of Colorado Law School, and Faculty Director at the Silicon Flatirons Center. Joe Waz, president of Altura West LLC in Los Angeles, is a retired telecommunications industry executive and Senior Fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center. Their just-released white paper on the subject is available at http://www.silicon-flatirons.org/documents/publications/report/InternetGovernanceRoleofMSHOrgs.pdf