What is internet governance?

New: Consult the Summary Report of the 2022 Internet Governance Forum.

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 programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet’.

This definition, developed by the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), dates back to 2005. It has remained unchanged ever since. The Internet governance regime has continuously evolved since then. It is now a complex system involving a multitude of issues, actors, mechanisms, procedures, and instruments.

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IG Building: What are the issues of Internet governance?

How did the Internet start?

The Internet started as a project sponsored by the US government. In late 1960, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was developed to facilitate the sharing of digital resources among computers. With the invention of the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) in the mid-1970s, ARPANET network evolved into what is now known as the Internet. In 1986, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) was created to manage the further development of the Internet through a cooperative, consensus-based decision-making process, involving a wide variety of individuals.

What was the DNS war?

In the early days of the Internet, there was no central government and no central planning to guide its evolution. This decentralised approach began to change. Governments and the private sector started realising the importance of the Internet as a global network. At the time, the US National Science Foundation managed the key infrastructure of the Internet. In 1994, it decided to subcontract the management of the Domain Name System (DNS) to a private company called Network Solutions Inc. This move lead to the so-called DNS war, which also brought new players into the picture: international organisations and nation-states. In 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) became the coordinator of the main internet technical resources.

Who defined ‘internet governance’, and why?

The 2003–2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) officially placed the issue of the internet’s governance on diplomatic agendas. Several controversies emerged at that point.

On the one hand, some countries wanted a restrictive definition of the term. This meant referring only to the technical management of critical Internet resources. Others were in favour of a broader definition. This would also cover policy issues such as e-commerce, spam, and cybercrime.

On the other hand, several countries supported a private-sector led model. Others argued that governments should be in charge of internet governance, in the framework of an intergovernmental body.

These controversies led to the creation of a multistakeholder Working Group on Internet Governance, which came up with the above definition. Participants in the second phase of WSIS (Tunis, 2005) embraced this definition. It became part of the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society.

Who are the internet governance actors?

According to the definition, there is no single organisation ‘in charge of the Internet’. However, various stakeholders – governments, intergovernmental organisations, the private sector, the technical community, and civil society – share roles and responsibilities in shaping the ‘evolution and use’ of this network.

There are now multiple actors involved in the governance of the internet, in one way or another. These form the so-called internet governance ecosystem. They include various UN bodies, organisations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), Internet companies, and NGOs.

The Digital Watch observatory uses the following classification of actors: academia/think tanks, business sector, civil society, governments, intergovernmental organisations, technical community, and international organisations. In some instances, the same actor fits under more than one stakeholder group.

Other terms: Digital policy, digital governance, cyber governance, internet policy

More than 10 years after WSIS, the concept of ‘internet governance’ remains open and prone to different interpretations. In the public policy debate, practitioners use other terms, often interchangeably. These include digital policy, digital governance, cyber governance, and Internet policy.

The question of different interpretations arises mainly in relation to the scope of the term. Some argue, for example, that cybersecurity is part of internet governance. For others, this is a separate field on its own. Some say that it is only about ICANN-related issues (management of domain names and IP addresses). Others extend the coverage to a wide set of Internet-related public policy issues.

The Digital Watch observatory uses ‘internet governance’ and ‘digital policy’ as umbrella concepts, covering over 50 internet public policy issues grouped into seven baskets: infrastructure, security, human rights, economic, development, legal, and sociocultural.

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