I’ve always been interested in the people who run the Internet behind the scenes. The process is known as Internet governance and it’s not the kind of topic that makes for many news articles, but the governance process has gotten us to the Internet we have today, which is very impressive. But there are changes in the governance coming that has some people worried.
Last year it was announced that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a US government agency, was going to to relinquish its oversight of the global Internet naming authority ICANN (International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). ICANN is the private nonprofit organization that oversees how domains are named and assigned, and until now the US has had formal oversight of the process.
Adding to this, there is a huge amount of concern worldwide about how the Internet is being used to spy on governments and people everywhere. Edward Snowden showed that the NTA is basically spying on everybody. Since then it’s been revealed that many other governments are doing the same sort of thing.
Last month one of my blogs had a poll that showed that people in the US don’t like being spied upon, but that as a whole we think it’s okay to spy on everybody else. As you can easily imagine, all of those other people don’t think that is a very comforting idea. And so we now have a number of countries looking for ways to somehow build a firewall around the data originating in their country.
As the NTIA is transitioning out of the governance of the Internet, there is a worldwide scramble to figure out what is going to replace it. The latest buzzword associated with this effort is ‘multi-stakeholder internet governance’, meaning the discussions are asking how the concerns of each country are to be heard in the process. There is a lot of talk going on about ruling by consensus. And this makes a lot of technology experts uneasy, an unease which can quickly be understood when looking to see how other multi-national consensus-based efforts at places like the UN actually function.
The general open concepts of the Internet as we know it today are based upon the strong views of the tech people who built the Internet that it ought to be open and free whenever possible. And so we ended up with this wonderful free-for-all that we call the web where ideas and content of all varieties are available to all. And those tech people are rightfully concerned of somehow handing the decisions off to bureaucrats who won’t care what works the best but who will bring other agendas into the governance process.
Governments around the globe differ extremely by what they want their citizens to see or not see on the web. Even a country that is as close to us culturally as England has some very different Internet policies and has built screens and firewalls that stop citizens from viewing pornography and a large list of other types of content. At the extreme end of that range are places like North Korea that doesn’t let the average citizen see the Internet at all.
And so many of the folks who have been governing the Internet behind the scenes are worrying if we have already broken the Internet as it was originally structured. This issue is not so readily apparent to Americans since we filter very little of the Internet here other than the effort that ISPs make to block malware generating sites.
But much of the rest of the world has already started down the path to wall themselves off from us us and this trend is building momentum. We probably will reach multinational consensus on the easy stuff – how to name web sites and how to route things. But one can legitimately ask if the Internet is already broken when there are already so many countries that block their citizens from using large chunks of what we Americans think of as the Internet.