The Internet is at a crossroads. And while high-profile events like the introduction of new gTLDs and revelations about governments and online surveillance may be a catalyst for recent Internet governance reform initiatives, their necessity isn't exactly new. After all, the current structures and processes in place were set up a decade and a half ago, an eternity in Internet years.
A key step in reviewing and renewing these structures is the Panel on the Future of Global Internet Cooperation, announced at the recent ICANN meeting in Buenos Aires. Last week I was in London for the first meeting of this panel to chart a path forward for the ongoing successful development of the Internet.
While the current Internet governance institutions were in large part responsible for getting the first two+ billion — mostly citizens of the developed world — online, they're likely not the right ones to get the next two billion — the citizens of the developing world — online. Those new users reside in parts of the world that have political structures that are based in philosophical underpinnings that differ greatly from ours in the west.
That's why I think the diversity of the panel members is noteworthy — not only are many sectors and industries represented, but geographic regions as well — panelists are all corners of the earth (you can view the panel's membership here. With that said, it must be made clear that this panel is not meant to be representative. Rather, we are group of knowledgeable individuals who are committed to the success of the Internet, and as such have come together to identify significant, potential solutions for administrating the Internet.
The variety of industries represented is also noteworthy. From current and former world leaders to senior bureaucrats, the tech community and the private sector, the diversity of voices at the table is striking. As an 'on-the-ground' operator present at the table, I believe that I bring a unique and important perspective. Given the diversity of viewpoints on the panel, I am confident our collective insights will ensure whatever recommendations we make as a panel will work in the real world.
The first meeting was spent identifying the desirable traits for the future administration of the Internet. Within the current governance mechanisms, what do we need to keep? What's missing? We all agreed that some enhanced role for governments is important to ensure the future success of the Internet. How do we accomplish this? And, since we've moved from a place where the Internet governance discussions are 'how it's used' instead of 'how it works,' how do we address the inherent jurisdictional issues?
When we do engage voices like governments in more discussions, a funny thing happens; you start to realize that some of the issues dividing you are sometimes just a question of semantics. As a panel, we had a discussion about the term 'governance' that was demonstrative of the different worlds we are trying to bridge. In the political world, the term 'governance' is loaded, and carries with it ideas of power and authority, certainly not the same meaning that we in the Internet world have given it. Are the terms coordination and administration more helpful moving forward?
The task is lofty — to come up with possible mechanisms and arrangements to ensure the Internet delivers on its promise of prosperity to the whole world, not just the developed one. And for someone with a business background, I'm used to having an end goal in mind, and working backwards from there. These discussions work in the opposite way — we know our starting place but we need to work our way to the end goal. I find this approach somewhat freeing — it is a much more open process — and I believe more likely to succeed without an end goal in mind.
We will meet as a panel three times — the recent December meeting, once in February and once in May. At the end of February 2014 we'll be releasing a high level report, and our ideas will be posted for comment and input. The much anticipated Brazil Internet summit will take place after our high-level report is released but before our work as a panel wraps up, so I'm sure our recommendations will form at least a part of the discussions there.
We are at a critical point in the ongoing development of the Internet. I believe it's healthy to review an entity's governance processes from time to time, and most certainly when we're at an inflection point of sorts, as we currently are.
Much in the same way the National Hockey League has had to adapt the rules of hockey to accommodate faster, stronger, more technical players, we will have to adapt the mechanisms of the Internet governance world in the face of upcoming new players — new gTLDs, the addition of two billion new users and the effect of the NSA revelations. However, there are certain characteristics that can never change — the game of hockey is still played with 12 players on the ice and three periods. Any and all changes have to be for the benefit of the game, or in this case, the good of the Internet.
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