March 2017 - Internet Governance

The Why, How, and Who of Internet Governance

The Internet is a contested space with numerous stakeholders with hugely diverse interests. dotmagazine’s Béla Herting explores why the Internet needs governing, the approaches, and the key bodies shaping today's global Internet ecosystem.

Internet Governance

Credit: © uschools | iStockphoto

... from small beginnings

The flourishing “dot com” industry and the massive proliferation and diffusion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the early 1990s marked the beginning of the transition to today's global Internet ecosystem – understood here as a decentralized international system of interconnected, yet independent networks which operate on different sets of open technology protocols. Over the years, the Internet has significantly gained momentum as a universal information and communication medium that profoundly changed our conventional understanding of interpersonal communication, and empowered its diverse beneficiaries on an unprecedented scale with far-reaching implications.

An unfolding process that has rapidly expanded into almost all economic, social, and political aspects of human life – predominately due to its “unique combination of physical and virtual properties” (Nye, 2014:5) that enable a fast growing number of Internet users to communicate across large geographical distances in an instant, with almost no marginal costs (Horvath, 2014:2). It was estimated by the International Telecommunication Union that the number of Internet users rocketed from 400 million in 2000 to 3.2 billion by the end of 2015.

What’s at stake

A meteoric rise that has not gone unnoticed – it has profoundly influenced a wide array of economic, political, and social relations between a diverse set of stakeholders, including, for example, multinational companies (MNCs), Internet service providers (ISPs), national governments, intergovernmental organizations (INGOs), and non-governmental institutions. Beyond any doubt, today’s global Internet environment has become a contested space in which “political and economic power is unfolding” (DeNardis, 2014:1-5), seeking to reflect “different perspectives, approaches, and policy interests” (Kurbalija, 2014:6) in context of interdisciplinary and on-going debates about, for example, freedom of expression vs. illegal content (e.g. fake news or child sexual abuse material); data privacy and promotion of digital innovation vs. preservation of national security against cyber-crime and international terrorism; knowledge (or information) commons vs. intellectual property rights. 

What can be observed is that the different stakeholders seek to further consolidate an overarching governance framework that is able to (a) provide a platform of coordination and exchange of information; (b) to harmonize the various sets of interests and requirements of today's growing online community; and (c) to formulate appropriate responses to digital challenges that by far exceed the territorially-bound capabilities of national governments, and thus require new governance structures based on a common vision of the future evolution of the Internet.

How can the Internet be governed?

Reflecting “a web of relationships among the many institutions, organizations and communities that have roles affecting the operation and use of the Internet”, the governance of the Internet is a complex field that aims to address global power struggles on how the Internet and its physical and virtual properties are being governed and institutionalized. From the very beginning, the term Internet governance was subject of partly diverging interpretations for which, over the years, various stakeholders have struggled to come up with a universal working definition.

In 2005, among the first, the UN-sponsored conference World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis formulated the following working definition:

"Internet governance is 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 programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet […] an essential element for a people-centred, inclusive, development-oriented and non-discriminatory Information Society." (International Telecommunication Union, 2015:75

It was an attempt to articulate an inclusive and open approach to Internet governance that reinforces the dialogue between all stakeholders involved, and to emphasize its central importance for a progressive and interconnected communication environment that allows diverging interests and perceptions to be respected and to flourish. However, there is, to date, no universally accepted definition of what Internet governance really implies.

Bringing the stakeholders together in Internet governance – some key players

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
Founded in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), ICANN is an international, non-profit corporation that is responsible for Internet Protocol (IP) address space allocation, protocol identifier assignment, generic (gTLD) and country code (ccTLD) Top-Level Domain name system management, and root server system management functions. In other words, this California-based multi-stakeholder organization operates what can be regarded as a global phone book that enables billions of Internet users to receive information on their end-user devices (e.g. smartphones and computers) by, for instance, translating domain names (such as into IP addresses ( (See the interview with Sven-Holger Wabnitz for further information on the functioning of the Domain Name System, operated by ICANN)

In the past, ICANN was often criticized by the international community of nation states for being an only semi-independent stakeholder-driven organization, due to the privileged position of the U.S. Department of Commerce to coordinate and manage the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions. However, in October 2016, after years of standstill, the legal contract that granted the U.S. government significant oversight over ICANN finally expired. This decision by the former U.S. administration was very well received by all stakeholders involved – a “significant step towards the globalisation of Internet's core infrastructure”, and the “most advanced version of a multistakeholder mechanism for a free, open and unfragmented Internet”.  (See A Quiet Global Revolution for a detailed account of the IANA Stewardship Transition). However, it must be seen that ICANN remains located within the boundaries of U.S. jurisdiction, meaning it is not immune to conflicting national interests and U.S. law.

eco’s Thomas Rickert and Lars Steffen are regular participants at ICANN meetings on behalf of eco. 

Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
Another important multi-stakeholder format is the Internet Governance Forum (IFG), a UN-related platform for dialogue on “public policy issues related to key elements of Internet governance issues, such as the Internet's sustainability, robustness, security, stability and development”. It was established as a result of the UN-sponsored conference World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005 – a non-decision-making forum that facilitates multi-stakeholder discussions about different public policy issues regarding core features of Internet governance. In line with its mandate, the IGF seeks to shape the evolution of the Internet by organizing regional, national and inter-governmental forums to encourage multi-stakeholder policy dialogues on an annual basis.

According to Wolfgang Kleinwächter, the IGF has finally reached a level of maturity which can further develop “Internet governance policy making [and] to kick start a discussion or to organize pressure towards decision-making bodies to find solutions for emerging issues” as could be seen during the IGF event in Guadalajara in December 2016. What is needed in today’s information age is a discussion platform that can be a meaningful tool to raise attention and support for Internet-related issues, and thereby structuring cross-national debates.

eco’s Chairman of the Board, Professor Michael Rotert, represents eco regularly at IGF meetings. 

Internet Society (ISOC)
The Internet Society (ISOC) is a US-based non-profit organization that was founded 1992 with the mission to promote leadership for “Internet policy, technology standards, and future development [and] to ensure the Internet continues to grow and evolve as a platform for innovation, economic development, and social progress for people around the world”. Governed by a diverse Board of Trustees, this membership-driven organization has currently more than 80,000 members and supporters, ranging “from non-profit agencies, local and global NGOs, academia, technologists, local councils, federal policy and decision makers, business and more”, as well as more than 140 organization members. (For further information on the Internet Society, listen to the interview with Olaf Kolkman, Chief Internet Technology Officer at ISOC)

International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
Founded in 1868, and thus considered as one of the oldest inter-governmental organizations, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a specialized agency of the United Nations with the “mission to enable the growth and sustained development of telecommunications and information networks, and to facilitate universal access so that people everywhere can participate in, and benefit from, the emerging information society and global economy”. In short, the ITU has three main sectors that define its core focus:

1. Radio Communication (ITU-R)
        Managing the international radio-frequency spectrum;
2. Standardization (ITU-T)
        Maintaining standards for telecommunication services;
3. Development (ITU-D)
         Ensuring access to ICT for the developing world.

In contrast to ICANN or the Internet Society (ISOC), which pursue a multi-stakeholder approach based on private sector organization, the ITU working groups “represent a telecommunications governance regime that is international and centered on nation-states”,  which means that non-state stakeholders are still largely excluded from the public policy mechanism at ITU. These divergent approaches to Internet-related issues are supported by different nation states. For example, developed countries in the West, such as the U.S. and EU member states, tend to predominately advocate ICANN and ISOC; whereas the strongest support ITU receives is from countries that value national sovereignty in cyberspace, including Russia, Brazil, China and the Arab states.

... and looking ahead...

To address current and future challenges that emerge through the global environment of the Internet, the international community of nation states and other stakeholders involved need to further develop meaningful discussion and negotiation forums, where different interests, perspectives, and policy focuses can be expressed and harmonized. Beyond any doubt, most Internet-related issues require a more holistic approach that acknowledges its universal interlinkages and cross-national nature. Traditional power politics based on national sovereignty, territoriality, and the principle of non-interference will certainly remain ineffective to solve the Internet governance issues of tomorrow.