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Who rules the internet? Getting under the skin of one of today's trickiest cross-border policy questions

As the UK enters a period of existential debates about which powers will be held at a EU rather than national level, we’re kicking off some research on internet governance - on issues that, by their very nature, strain the limits of national jurisdiction. Twenty years after public calls for a cyberspace without government interference, coming up with a unified approach to managing issues from cybersecurity to broadband infrastructure remains a difficult challenge. Through new kinds of data-driven analysis, we want to understand the human dynamics behind what is often characterised as an area of technocratic technology policymaking.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. - John Perry Barlow, Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996)

These are the opening words of internet pioneer John Perry Barlow’s amazingly prescient, if in retrospect perhaps too optimistic, declaration calling for the continued independence of cyberspace, published exactly twenty years ago this month. The then still nascent internet was already facing pressure from outside powers trying to curb its openness: the reason for Barlow’s writing was his dismay with the US government’s proposed Communications Decency Act, which, among other things, regulated the use of obscene and indecent language online.

In the post-Snowden era, this issue might seem relatively minor. Indeed, in the twenty years since Barlow published his declaration, the internet has grown up - in 1996 there were 77 million internet users, today there are over 3.3 billion- but so have the challenges threatening its openness. The global internet, which derives so much of its value from our ability to connect and share with anyone anywhere, is increasingly at risk of fragmentation. Threats are diverse and myriad.

An end to open internet? 

Fear of spying by foreign governments and the increased risk of destructive cyber attacks leads governments to cordon off bits of their national internet. Censorship of political speech online has reached new heights in the wake of the Arab Spring - with last week’s elections in Uganda, where authorities blocked Whatsapp and Facebook, just one of the latest infractions.

And not only governments are guilty. Take Free Basics, the much-maligned Facebook service that provides people in developing countries with free mobile data, but restricts access to a small number of Facebook-approved websites only. By bringing a ‘walled-off’’ internet, shaped by Western corporate interests to the world’s poor, some say Free Basics is more like digital colonialism than a charitable endeavour (though apparently not everyone in Silicon Valley believes colonialism is such a bad thing). While the service was effectively banned by Indian courts last week, it remains available in 37 other countries.

To understand the pressures challenging the borderlessness of the internet, it is important to understand who is in charge of achieving that borderlessness in the first place

These developments should not surprise us. In some ways still a ‘geek community’ in 1996, the internet has since become so ubiquitous, permeating our economic, political and daily lives, that harnessing, and controlling its power has become a key objective for governments and the private sector alike. In order to understand the pressures challenging the borderlessness of the internet, it is therefore important to understand who is in charge of achieving that borderlessness in the first place.

Governing the internet in the 21st century

Who sets the rules, standards, and norms, and who maintains the infrastructure, is not an easy question to answer. (Despite the internet’s ephemeral, lawless appeal, its underlying physical network of cables, tubes and wires does of course fall under traditional geographical jurisdictions). Internet governance, the catch-all term to describe the processes and decisions that determine how the internet is managed, is increasingly complex and the game of an ever-larger number of actors and competing bodies.

Governments, technology companies and civil society organisations come together in events ranging from COP21-style large gatherings like NETMundial, ICANN and the IGF to small expert community meetings. Here they make decisions on topics like the length of IP addresses, maintaining net neutrality and cross-border data flows. No single actor is in charge, the internet is instead governed by a multistakeholder model, where governments, the private sector and advocacy groups have an equal voice and anyone is allowed to become involved. This model is in essence democratic, but increasingly hard to manage.

The institutions of internet governance grew quickly at the end of the 20th century. Their complexity is partly an accident of history and partly a symptom of the difficulty of managing the different needs and debates in political and technological communities. In the 21st century, there are calls for a redesigned decision-making process that deals with the complexity created by continued, rapid technological development.

The structures and rules of the world wide web are shrouded by complex processes and huge volumes of often technical, acronym-laden information.

One of the main aims of these reforms should be to make the internet governance process more inclusive. The structures and rules of the world wide web are shrouded by complex processes and huge volumes of often technical, acronym-laden information. This is particularly problematic for newcomers in this area - policymakers, digital businesses, engaged members of the public - who often lack the resources to make sense of this complicated, constantly evolving landscape. A clearer, more comprehensive mapping of internet governance issues is necessary for these deliberations to be open enough to be valid.

What Nesta is doing

That is why a new Nesta project will look to bring more clarity to the processes and actors that govern the internet. In a series of blogs we will take an in-depth look at some of the more topical debates and developments in internet governance, from discussing the benefits of being part of the European Union’s Digital Single Market, to China banning foreign content online. We will also publish two pieces of research that take a data-driven approach to mapping and analysing policymaking and spheres of influence within the internet governance ecosystem.

The first piece of the research will look at internet policymaking in the European Union. Focusing specifically on cyber security, we will analyse how different member states’ voting behavior and language in this area shapes the larger European Union narrative and agenda. The European Union’s internet policy decisions- from the Right to be Forgotten to international data roaming rules - are influential. Brussels’ role as a regulatory superpower, in so far as the European Union sets the standard and others follow suit, makes it important to learn more about how it makes decisions. Cybersecurity is a particularly important topic, because the European Union will release a new Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy in June 2016. Since 2003, when the previous strategy was released, cybersecurity risks have evolved significantly, as has their relevance to current political debates on national security.

Brussels’ role as a regulatory superpower, in so far as the European Union sets the standard and others follow suit, makes it important to learn more about how it makes decisions.

The second piece of research will use novel data mining methods to map the influence of different bodies and actors in the internet governance ecosystem. How do issues move through layers of international decision-making? Who is most influential: internet tech companies, the United States, internet service providers or Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves? This exercise will offer insight into the operations of the current multistakeholder model. We hope to use these findings to develop a tool that helps classify emerging issues, identifying which are particularly contentious and which can be dealt with within an expert technical community.   

This work is an experiment to find out if the data analysis methods we are increasingly using at Nesta can be productive in a complex international policy setting. Over the coming weeks I will interview several stakeholders to help us in our approach to different issues under the broad banner of internet governance. If you would like to become involved, I’d love to hear from you.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Flickr under CC

Author

Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Data Scientist

Katja is a data scientist in the technology futures and explorations teams at Nesta. Her work focuses on using novel data sources and techniques to identify and analyse emerging tech...

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