Internet governance is the development and application of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet. This article describes how the Internet was and is currently governed, some of the controversies that occurred along the way, and the ongoing debates about how the Internet should or should not be governed in the future.
Internet governance should not be confused with E-Governance, which refers to governments' use of technology to carry out their governing duties.
No one person, company, organization or government runs the Internet. It is a globally distributed network comprising many voluntarily interconnected autonomous networks. It operates without a central governing body with each constituent network setting and enforcing its own policies. Its governance is conducted by a decentralized and international multistakeholder network of interconnected autonomous groups drawing from civil society, the private sector, governments, the academic and research communities and national and international organizations. They work cooperatively from their respective roles to create shared policies and standards that maintain the Internet's global interoperability for the public good.
However, to help ensure interoperability, several key technical and policy aspects of the underlying core infrastructure and the principal namespaces are administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is headquartered in Los Angeles, California. ICANN oversees the assignment of globally unique identifiers on the Internet, including domain names, Internet protocol addresses, application port numbers in the transport protocols, and many other parameters. This seeks to create a globally unified namespace to ensure the global reach of the Internet. ICANN is governed by an international board of directors drawn from across the Internet's technical, business, academic, and other non-commercial communities. However, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, continues to have final approval over changes to the DNS root zone. This authority over the root zone file makes ICANN one of a few bodies with global, centralized influence over the otherwise distributed Internet. In the September 30, 2009 Affirmation of Commitments by the Department of Commerce and ICANN, the Department of Commerce finally affirmed that a "private coordinating process…is best able to flexibly meet the changing needs of the Internet and of Internet users" (para. 4). While ICANN itself interpreted this as a declaration of its independence, scholars still point out that this is not yet the case. Considering that the U.S. Department of Commerce can unilaterally terminate the Affirmation of Commitments with ICANN, the authority of DNS administration is likewise seen as revocable and derived from a single State, namely the United States.
The technical underpinning and standardization of the Internet's core protocols (IPv4 and IPv6) is an activity of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a non-profit organization of loosely affiliated international participants that anyone may associate with by contributing technical expertise.
On 16 November 2005, the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Tunis, established the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to open an ongoing, non-binding conversation among multiple stakeholders about the future of Internet governance. Since WSIS, the term "Internet governance" has been broadened beyond narrow technical concerns to include a wider range of Internet-related policy issues.
The definition of Internet governance has been contested by differing groups across political and ideological lines. One of the main debates concerns the authority and participation of certain actors, such as national governments, corporate entities and civil society, to play a role in the Internet's governance.
A working group established after a UN-initiated World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) proposed the following definition of Internet governance as part of its June 2005 report:
- 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.
- Physical infrastructure layer (through which information travels)
- Code or logical layer (controls the infrastructure)
- Content layer (contains the information signaled through the network)
Professors Jovan Kurbalija and Laura DeNardis also offer comprehensive definitions to “Internet Governance”. According to Kurbalija, the broad approach to Internet Governance goes “beyond Internet infrastructural aspects and address other legal, economic, developmental, and sociocultural issues” ; along similar lines, DeNardis argues that “Internet Governance generally refers to policy and technical coordination issues related to the exchange of information over the Internet”.
To understand how the Internet is managed today, it is necessary to know a little of its history. The original ARPANET is one of the components which eventually evolved to become the Internet. As its name suggests the ARPANET was sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency within the U.S. Department of Defense. During the development of ARPANET, a numbered series of Request for Comments (RFCs) memos documented technical decisions and methods of working as they evolved. The standards of today's Internet are still documented by RFCs.
Between 1984 and 1986 the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) created the NSFNET backbone, using TCP/IP, to connect their supercomputing facilities. NSFNET became a general-purpose research network, a hub to connect the supercomputing centers to each other and to the regional research and education networks that would in turn connect campus networks. The combined networks became generally known as the Internet. By the end of 1989, Australia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the UK were connected to the Internet, which had grown to contain more than 160,000 hosts.
In 1990, the ARPANET was formally terminated. In 1991 the NSF began to relax its restrictions on commercial use on NSFNET and commercial network providers began to interconnect. The final restrictions on carrying commercial traffic ended on April 30, 1995, when the NSF ended its sponsorship of the NSFNET Backbone Service and the service ended. Today almost all Internet infrastructure in the United States, and large portion in other countries, is provided and owned by the private sector. Traffic is exchanged between these networks, at major interconnection points, in accordance with established Internet standards and commercial agreements.
During 1979 the Internet Configuration Control Board was founded by DARPA to oversee the network's development. During 1984 it was renamed the Internet Advisory Board (IAB), and during 1986 it became the Internet Activities Board.
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) was formed during 1986 by the U.S. government to develop and promote Internet standards. It consisted initially of researchers, but by the end of the year participation was available to anyone, and its business was performed largely by email.
From the early days of the network until his death during 1998, Jon Postel oversaw address allocation and other Internet protocol numbering and assignments in his capacity as Director of the Computer Networks Division at the Information Sciences Institute of the University of Southern California, under a contract from the Department of Defense. This function eventually became known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), and as it expanded to include management of the global Domain Name System (DNS) root servers, a small organization grew. Postel also served as RFC Editor.
Allocation of IP addresses was delegated to five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs):
- American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) for North America
- Réseaux IP Européens - Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC) for Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia
- Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) for Asia and the Pacific region
- Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC) for Latin America and the Caribbean region
- African Network Information Center (AfriNIC) was created in 2004 to manage allocations for Africa
After Jon Postel's death in 1998, IANA became part of ICANN, a California nonprofit established in September 1998 by the U.S. government and awarded a contract by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Initially two board members were elected by the Internet community at large, though this was changed by the rest of the board in 2002 in a poorly attended public meeting in Accra, Ghana.
In 1992 the Internet Society (ISOC) was founded, with a mission to "assure the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world". Its members include individuals (anyone may join) as well as corporations, organizations, governments, and universities. The IAB was renamed the Internet Architecture Board, and became part of ISOC. The Internet Engineering Task Force also became part of the ISOC. The IETF is overseen currently by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), and longer-term research is carried on by the Internet Research Task Force and overseen by the Internet Research Steering Group.
At the first World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in 2003, the topic of Internet governance was discussed. ICANN's status as a private corporation under contract to the U.S. government created controversy among other governments, especially Brazil, China, South Africa, and some Arab states. Since no general agreement existed even on the definition of what comprised Internet governance, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan initiated a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) to clarify the issues and report before the second part of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis 2005. After much controversial debate, during which the U.S. delegation refused to consider surrendering the U.S. control of the Root Zone file, participants agreed on a compromise to allow for wider international debate on the policy principles. They agreed to establish an Internet Governance Forum, to be convened by the United Nations Secretary General before the end of the second quarter of 2006. The Greek government volunteered to host the first such meeting.
Globalization and governance controversy
The position of the U.S. Department of Commerce as the controller of some aspects of the Internet gradually attracted criticism from those who felt that control should be more international. A hands-off philosophy by the Department of Commerce helped limit this criticism, but this was undermined in 2005 when the Bush administration intervened to help kill the .xxx top-level domain proposal, and, much more severely, following the 2013 disclosures of mass surveillance by the U.S. government.
When the IANA functions were handed over to ICANN, a new U.S. nonprofit, controversy increased. ICANN's decision-making process was criticised by some observers as being secretive and unaccountable. When the directors' posts which had previously been elected by the "at-large" community of Internet users were abolished, some feared that ICANN would become illegitimate and its qualifications questionable, due to the fact that it was now losing the aspect of being a neutral governing body. ICANN stated that it was merely streamlining decision making, and developing a structure suitable for the modern Internet.
Other topics of controversy included the creation and control of generic top-level domains (.com, .org, and possible new ones, such as .biz or .xxx), the control of country-code domains, recent proposals for a large increase in ICANN's budget and responsibilities, and a proposed "domain tax" to pay for the increase.
There were also suggestions that individual governments should have more control, or that the International Telecommunication Union or the United Nations should have a function in Internet governance.
One controversial proposal to this effect, resulting from a September 2011 summit between India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA), would seek to move internet governance into a "UN Committee on Internet-Related Policy" (UN-CIRP). The move was a reaction to a perception that the principles of the 2005 Tunis Agenda for the Information Society have not been met. The statement called for the subordination of independent technical organizations such as ICANN and the ITU to a political organization operating under the auspices of the United Nations. After outrage from India’s civil society and media, the Indian government backed away from the proposal.
On 7 October 2013 the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation was released by a number of organizations involved in coordinating the Internet's global technical infrastructure, loosely known as the "I*" (or "I-star") group. Among other things, the statement "expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance" and "called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing". This desire to move away from a United States centric approach is seen as a reaction to the ongoing NSA surveillance scandal. The statement was signed by the heads of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the World Wide Web Consortium, the Internet Society, and the five regional Internet address registries (African Network Information Center, American Registry for Internet Numbers, Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre, Latin America and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry, and Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre).
In October 2013, Fadi Chehadé, current President and CEO of ICANN, met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia. Upon Chehadé's invitation, the two announced that Brazil would host an international summit on Internet governance in April 2014.  The announcement came after the 2013 disclosures of mass surveillance by the U.S. government, and President Rousseff's speech at the opening session of the 2013 United Nations General Assembly, where she strongly criticized the American surveillance program as a "breach of international law". The "Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NET mundial)" will include representatives of government, industry, civil society, and academia. At the IGF VIII meeting in Bali in October 2013 a commenter noted that Brazil intends the meeting to be a "summit" in the sense that it will be high level with decision-making authority. The organizers of the "NET mundial" meeting have decided that an online forum called "/1net", set up by the I* group, will be a major conduit of non-governmental input into the three committees preparing for the meeting in April.
- International Organization for Standardization, Maintenance Agency (ISO 3166 MA): Defines names and postal codes of countries, dependent territories, special areas of geographic significance. To date it has only played a minor role in developing Internet standards.
- Internet Architecture Board (IAB): Oversees the technical and engineering development of the IETF and IRTF.
- Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN): Coordinates the Internet's systems of unique identifiers: IP addresses, Protocol-Parameter registries, top-level domain space (DNS root zone). Performs Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function under agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
- Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF): Develops and promotes a wide range of Internet standards dealing in particular with standards of the Internet protocol suite. Their technical documents influence the way people design, use and manage the Internet.
- Internet Governance Forum (IGF): A multistakeholder forum for policy dialogue.
- Internet Research Task Force (IRTF): Promotes research of the evolution of the Internet by creating focused, long-term research groups working on Internet protocols, applications, architecture, and technology.
- Internet Network Operators' Groups (NOGs): informal groups established to provide forums for network operators to discuss matters of mutual interest.
- Internet Society (ISOC): Assures the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world. Currently ISOC has over 90 chapters in around 80 countries.
- Number Resource Organization (NRO): Established in October 2003, the NRO is an unincorporated organization uniting the five regional Internet registries.
- Regional Internet Registries (RIRs): There are five regional Internet registries. They manage the allocation and registration of Internet number resources, such as IP addresses, within geographic regions of the world. (Africa: www.afrinic.net; Asia Pacific: www.apnic.net; Canada and United States: www.arin.net; Latin America & Caribbean: www.lacnic.net; Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia: www.ripe.net)
- World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): Creates standards for the World Wide Web that enable an Open Web Platform, for example, by focusing on issues of accessibility, internationalization, and mobile web solutions.
United Nations bodies
- Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
- IGF regional, national, and subject area initiatives
- Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) Working Group on Improvements to the IGF (CSTDWG), active from February 2011 to May 2012.
- International Telecommunications Union (ITU)
- World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a treaty-level conference facilitated by the ITU to address international telecommunications regulations, held in December 2012 in Dubai.
- World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), summits held in 2003 (Geneva) and 2005 (Tunis).
- WSIS Forum, annual meetings held in Geneva starting in 2006 as a follow up of the WSIS Geneva Plan of Action.
- WSIS + 10, a high-level event and extended version of the WSIS Forum to take stock of achievements in the last 10 years and develop proposals for a new vision beyond 2015, to be held from 13 to 17 April 2014 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
- Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), active from September 2004 to November 2005.
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- The Global War for Internet Governance, Laura DeNardis, Yale University Press, 2014. Explains global power dynamics around technical and political governance of the Internet.
- Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace by Milton Mueller, MIT Press, 2002. The definitive study of DNS and ICANN's early history.
- Protocol Politics, Laura DeNardis, MIT Press, 2009. IP addressing and the migration to IPv6
- "One History of DNS" by Ross W. Rader. April 2001. Article contains historic facts about DNS and explains the reasons behind the so-called "dns war".
- "The Emerging Field of Internet Governance", by Laura DeNardis. September 2010. Suggests a framework for understanding problems in Internet governance.
- Launching the DNS War: Dot-Com Privatization and the Rise of Global Internet Governance by Craig Simon. December 2006. Ph.D. dissertation containing an extensive history of events which sparked the so-called "dns war".
- "Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace", by A. Michael Froomkin, 116 Harv. L. Rev. 749 (2003). Argues that the Internet standards process undertaken by the IETF fulfils Jürgen Habermas's conditions for the best practical discourse.
- Mueller, Milton L. (2010). Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01459-5.
- Dutton, William H.; Malcolm Peltu (March 2007). "The emerging Internet governance mosaic: Connecting the pieces". Information Polity: The International Journal of Government & Democracy in the Information Age 12 (1/2): 63–81. ISSN 1570-1255.
- Malte Ziewitz and Christian Pentzold provide in "In search of internet governance: Performing order in digitally networked environments", New Media & Society 16 (2014): pp. 306-322 an overview of definitions of Internet Governance and approaches to its study.
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- APC Internet Rights Charter, Association for Progressive Communications, November 2006
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- /1Net Discussion Group