Internet Governance: Past, Present and Future

In the last few decades, the Internet plays an important part in everyday life of people around the world.

The Internet, a global system of interconnected computer networks, is one of the most defining technologies of our time. Most aspects of our lives are touched in some form or another by the internet, including our economic and financial systems, our social interactions, our education, work and civic participation, as well as the many services we use to complement our lives, from entertainment and banking services to booking travel. In many ways, the internet has become an indispensable aspect of modern life – and peoples’ dependence on the internet and its ecosystem of services will only continue to grow.

Despite the constant and ubiquitous presence of the internet, most people have little understanding about how this complex system actually works. Internet users, particularly in areas with highly reliable connections, take it for granted that everything simply works as expected. Yet, underpinning all technical infrastructure, applications, services and content is a complex system of institutions, actors, mechanisms, and rules that govern how the internet works – termed ​“internet governance.”

Internet governance is broadly defined as the processes that influence how the internet is managed – locally, nationally, regionally and globally. The United Nations Working Group on internet Governance (WGIG) defined internet governance in 2005 as ​“the development and application by governments, the private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programs, that shape the evolution and utilization of the internet.”

Yet, there are two key challenges that are posing a threat to the free and open model of the internet.

  • First, states such as Russia and China are challenging the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance. Whereas the multi-stakeholder model places responsibility for critical decisions on the future of the internet into the hands of a wide range of stakeholders from the public, private, civil society and technical sectors, Russia and China seek more (inter)governmental control of the internet and are actively promoting a more authoritarian and illiberal form of the internet that restricts access to information and represses citizens.

  • Second, the free and open internet that is built upon the idea of largely uninhibited information flows is being threatened by efforts to control and limit the types of information accessible to users. This ​“fragmentation” has thus far mainly occurred on the internet in the form of the regulation of content through, for example, censorship or, in the case of overturning net neutrality, the erosion of the principle of equal access. Yet, there is also a risk of fragmentation of the internet, namely the introduction of new physical infrastructure that could threaten the existence of a global network and instead introduce a number of separate networks with little to no information exchange.

A Brief History of Internet Governance

Source: Internet Governance Project

The core concept of the Internet as a decentralized network of networks was born in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s due to the perceived threat of a Soviet nuclear attack on the country’s centralized communication systems. The idea was to build a decentralized system of communication that would utilize a “web” rather than a central hub. In such a system, messages could be sent through a large network of carrier lines without having to pass through a central and easily destroyable hub, allowing for different pathways to the destination.

The first such decentralized system was the Arpanet, a project of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) under the US Department of Defense, which connected the computers of four universities in the United States (US). In the following decades, as the Cold War threat diminished, the Department of Defense lost interest in the idea of a decentralized communications network and left the remnants of what they had created to “excited students who wanted to connect computers and test and develop something new.

The US government’s abdication of primary responsibility for designing and managing the early Internet was a crucial development. The decision laid the foundation for two key traits that have long been embedded into the DNA of the Internet, namely, a multi-stakeholder governance model and the idea that the Internet should be “free and open”. With respect to the former, the multi-stakeholder governance model enables a variety of actors or stakeholders – governments, the private sector, the technical community and civil society – to come together to make decisions for how the Internet should work. In this context, early governance efforts were primarily limited to technical issues such as assignment of globally unique identifiers on the Internet, for example, the domain names of our favorite websites, or technical standards necessary for the interoperability of different networks.

Today, Internet governance encompasses the entire mix of issues that determine the Internet experience at the local, national, regional and global levels – ranging from the technical side, such as interoperability standards, to politicized issues such as censorship, misinformation campaigns and net neutrality, among many others.

How does Internet governance work?

Internet governance is composed of three broad areas:

  1. The tools that govern the functioning of the Internet and behavior on it.

  2. The layers upon which these tools are used at the local, national, regional and global levels.

  3. The actors that are involved in shaping and applying these rules.

First, the tools of Internet governance take the form of laws, policies, technical standards or codes of conduct that are formed, monitored and enforced by numerous actors. For example, policies regarding public investment into the maintenance, expansion, and upgrading of infrastructure are mostly set by governments, as is the case currently with rollout of the 5G mobile data standard.

Second, these tools are applied across different ‘layers’ that make the entire functioning and usage of the Internet possible:

  • The infrastructure layer represents the physical structure needed to send data from one point to the other in the giant network of the internet. It consists of all of the hardware needed for creating and passing information from one point to another, for example, computers, terrestrial and undersea cables, satellites, exchange points, wire-less systems and wires. In effect, the infrastructure layer of the Internet is comparable to the airplanes, freighters, delivery trucks and post boxes required for the postal system to function.

  • The logical layer provides the instructions for how this information travels through the infrastructure layer and ensures compatibility between different networks. Most importantly, it is responsible for governing the domain name system (DNS) – a system that translates domain names to IP addresses. The role of the logical layer is roughly equivalent to the system for regulating the sizes of mail packages, the usage and acceptance of stamps internationally as well as ensuring that the respective pieces of mail are traveling in the correct direction.

  • The applications layer of the Internet is where we find the many pieces of software and applications that allow us to both access the Internet via our electronic devices as well as leverage different online services. This includes, for example, e-mail software, internet browsers, Skype or games on mobile phones. Fundamentally, these applications enable direct communication between different networked devices and users. As such, the role of the application layer of the Internet is comparable to those of the postcard and the tool we use to write on them, such as a pencil or pen. The content layer of the Internet is all of the information that can be found within the application layer. This includes, for example, the text on websites, videos in news media applications, images on Instagram, and the audio content of your favorite podcast. In the postal service example, the content layer is equivalent to the message that is written on a postcard.

Internet Governance in 2035: Best and Worst Cases for Europe

Best case: A healthy and prosperous Internet for all

By 2035, the European vision of a reasonably regulated, free and open Internet underpinned by a robust multi-stakeholder Internet governance model is on the march. Despite some national variations across the world, regulatory frameworks for Internet governance are increasingly rooted in a set of commonly accepted principles that protect the inviolability of the Internet as a global network of networks, where information flows freely, where the democratic rule of law, individual rights and freedoms are protected online. Fragmentation across the different layers of the Internet was largely avoided, likely as a result of two key developments:

  1. The economic and social consequences of information became tangible following attempts by several Latin American countries to implement wide-scale restrictions.

  2. China and Russia stopped actively exporting their vision of a government-controlled Internet and turned inward to deal with rising domestic challenges to this model. Citizens across the world, with a few national exceptions, enjoy a universal right of access to information. The rapid deployment and blanket reach of satellite-based Internet services has provided every citizen of the world with the opportunity to take advantage of cheap and reliable Internet access.

Worst case: The demise of the free and open Internet.

In 2035, the European vision of a free and open Internet is collapsing. Technological advances in microprocessor technology, power efficiency and next generation mobile networks, as well as large cost reductions, have facilitated the Internet of. Things revolution and led to a rapid transformation of virtually all sectors of society and people’s lives.

Yet, the benefits are increasingly being outweighed by the risks. In particular, the exponential increase in personal data, usage statistics and geolocation information collected by not only large technology companies, but also smaller companies producing apparel, appliances, food and beverages, among many other industries whose products are essential to our well-being, have led to alarming abuses of privacy and rapidly increasing instances of cyber crime and fraud across the world. As a result, citizens around the world, particularly in Europe, have lost trust in their governments’ ability to solve the problem and are increasingly gravitating towards political extremism.