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Internet Governance: Coin of the New Realm

Daniel Berninger

The Aspen Institute released the IDEA Common Statement and Principles as a do no harm Hippocratic Oath for Internet governance. The Aspen report describes the present moment as an inflection point for "the most robust medium of information exchange in history". Reed Hundt outlined the risks associated with Internet governance changes favored by China and a group of developing nations through the ITU. Michael Joseph Gross frames this same ITU dispute as World War 3.0 in the May 2012 issue of Vanity Fair. The collision between the borderless Internet and national borders may prove World War 3.0 a literal description of the forces in play. The Aspen report argues governance represents the coin of this new realm.

A world where the availability of connectivity shapes prosperity does not follow the same contours and constraints as the present Haves and Have-Nots economic pyramid. This makes Aspen's do no harm principles problematic for those benefiting from the economic status quo. The frictionless nature of the Internet creates an existential threat to the relevance of borders and by extension the wealth of gatekeepers. The enormous stakes promise a Darwinian survival of the fittest battle between champions of connectivity and disconnectivity splitting the world between these doctrines. The resulting stalemate may prove unresolvable until one side or the other wins economic hegemony as in the case of the Cold War.

The cost of moving a bit (1 or 0) from A to B or average-bit-cost (ABC) benefits from the same Moore's Law of transistor density driving processing power, memory, storage, and even megapixels. In 1980, AT&T charged $0.43 per minute for a "long distance" connection between 300 baud modems connecting computers in Los Angeles and New York. The present reflects the benefits of the 100 fold per decade reduction in ABC enabled by Moore's Law. The assault on physical borders will continue to escalate with another 10,000 fold ABC reduction due by 2040. The profound nature of the conflict reflects the fact coercion and communication anchor two ends of the human interaction spectrum.

Borders will remain important everywhere there exists a threat of coercion, but borders represent mere means to the end of prosperity. The motivations listed in the preamble of the US Constitution "… establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare,..." represent universal aspirations. The Internet governance debates provide an opportunity to test connectivity as a more potent source of prosperity than the delegation of power to the gatekeepers of national borders. The momentum presently favors the new Internet majority living in the developing world as well as China, Russia, India, and Brazil. The Internet freedom champions in America and Europe devolved into financial turmoil during the same period over the last decade China cut the GDP gap with the US from 8:1 to 2:1.

Internet partisans can point to the military cost of sustaining borders, abuses of power by gatekeepers, and uneven access to the resulting benefits. It nonetheless remains an open question how many of the 2 billion people already connected will step up to defend the benefits of the Internet. Threats to the Internet include both excessive and insufficient regulation. History shows borderless anarchy yields a downward spiral into horror conceding the landscape to strongman governance. The promise of the Internet as an engine of innovation seems unlikely to survive the interventionist regulatory model associated telephone networks championed by the ITU.

Internet governance decisions may reorder the world order as much as the world wars in the last century. Expanding connectivity creates wealth for the same reasons as borders by facilitating cooperation in pursuit of a common goal. The extent of cooperation reflects the extent communication tools replicate the experience of connecting in-person. Continuous improvement promises to make communication tools entirely substitutable for meeting in-person over time, but this does not preclude a painful transition. The 250 million lives lost to border disputes in the last century makes defending the promise of the Internet an urgent matter for this century.

By Daniel Berninger, Technology Analyst
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