Internet Governance Outlook 2014: Good News, Bad News, No News?

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter
Wolfgang Kleinwächter

What does the crystal ball say for the Internet in 2014? Here are three scenarios for what could happen with the global Internet Governance Eco-System in the coming 12 months:

Three Scenarios

In the worst case scenario the Internet gets more and more fragmented and re-nationalized. A growing number of governments start to define a "national Internet segment" and develop policies to surveil, censor and control access to and use of the Internet. National firewalls will separate the "domestic Internet" from the global Internet and an exit and entrance regime into networks is introduced where users need passwords, handed out by governmental authorities on an annual basis, to go from one domain to another. Political battles among governments over critical Internet resources, cybersecurity and human rights will dominate international discussions, no global agreement can be reached, the voice of non-governmental stakeholders is ignored and the mandate of the Internet Governance Forum is not renewed.

In the best case scenario we will have a more secure Internet at the end of 2014 with more freedoms, more privacy and more involved stakeholders which enhance their cooperation on equal footing in a further growing global Internet Governance Eco-System. Surveillance is put under the rule of law and restricted on the basis of proportionality to cases where clear evidence is available for illegal activities. The next billion of Internet users will go online. We will see a new wave of innovative services and applications where objects are linked to the Internet creating new market opportunities, jobs and spaces for all kind of commercial, cultural and social activities improving the quality of life of billions of users around the globe.

Between the two scenarios 2014 could also become just another year in stumbling forward, as the former US president Bill Clinton has once described Internet Governance. We will see hot political debates with numerous papers and controversial proposals but little outcome. Some small steps could be taken as the successful start of some new top level domains, some arrangements on confidence building measures to enhance cybersecurity or a global agreement on some high level non-binding basic principles for Internet policy making. But a lot of other open and orphan issues under discussion will remain unresolved and postponed into the year 2015.

Internet Governance Eco-System as "Rainforest" of the 21st Century

An important role will play how the numerous involved governmental and non-governmental actors understand the nature of the complexity of the Internet Governance Eco-System. Already the terminology "Internet Governance Eco-System" signals that the Internet is not just "another policy issue" which — after the revelations of Edward Snowden — has been pushed now for policy decision makers from "low priority" to "high priority". The problem is much more complex.

The Internet is not a "single issue" which needs to be regulated in one way or another. The Internet, as it has evolved over half of a century, has penetrated all areas of the political, economic, cultural and social life around the globe. It constitutes more and more the environment in which individuals and institutions do live and learn, do their business, buy and sell, make love and fun and have all kind of individual or collective activities. The Internet Governance Eco-System constitutes to a high degree the virtual environment of the 21st century. Life without the Internet is meanwhile unthinkable for the young generation which are the decision makers of tomorrow. From the 20th century we know about the consequences of the pollution of our natural environment. The lesson learned from those disasters is that we should be very careful with all kinds of pollutions and keep our real and virtual environment as healthy as possible.

The Internet Governance Eco-System can be compared a little bit to the rainforest. In the rainforest an uncountable number of diverse plants and animals live together in a very complex system. In the "virtual rainforest" we have also an endless and growing diversity of networks, services, applications, regimes and other properties which co-exist in a mutual interdependent mechanism of communication, coordination and collaboration. One thing which can be learnt is that the rainforest as a whole is not managable. It can be neither governed nor controlled, but it can be damaged and destroyed. In the Internet Governance Eco-System many players with very different legal status operate on many different layers, on local, national, regional and international levels, driven by technical innovation, user needs, market opportunities and political interests.

As a result we see a very dynamic process where — from a political-legal perspective — a broad variety of different regulatory, co-regulatory or self-regulatory regimes emerge, co-exist and complement or conflict each other. The system as a whole is decentralized, diversified and has no central authority. However, within the various subsystems there is an incredible broad variety of different sub-mechanisms which range from hierarchical structures under single or inter-governmental control to non-hierarchical networks based on self-regulatory mechanisms by non-governmental groups with a wide range of co-regulatory arrangements in between where affected and concerned stakeholders from governments, private sector, civil society and technical community are working hand in hand.

There is no "one size fits all" solution. The specific form of each sub-system has to be designed according to the very specific needs and nature of the individual issue. In such a mechanism, traditional national legislation and intergovernmental agreements continue to play a role but have to be embedded into the broader multistakeholder environment while new emerging mechanisms have to take note and recognize existing frameworks and regulations on various levels. The "do-not-harm" principle becomes more important than ever. It means that whatever a governmental or non-governmental player will do in the Internet has to take into consideration its direct or indirect consequences for not involved third parties as well as the unintended side-effects for the system as a whole.

Such a competitive coexistence of rather different regimes and mechanisms creates opportunities but has also risks. There are incredible opportunities for new mechanisms, platforms and services to bring more dynamic into political strategies, social actions and market developments. This competitive coexistence can stimulate innovation, promote job creation, enlarge all kinds of cultural activities and broaden the use of individual freedoms by the public at large both in developed and developing nations. But there is also a risk that differences between regimes and systems create controversies and produce heavy conflicts which includes the threat to turn down innovation, hamper sustainable development, to reduce individual freedoms and to pollute the Internet Governance Eco-System in a way that parts of it will be damaged or destroyed.

The challenge is to find flexible mechanisms for enhanced communication, coordination as well as formal and informal collaboration among the various players at the different layers to allow that all stakeholders can play their respective role on an equal footing without discrimination in an open and transparent mechanism. Among the key principles for such an enhanced cooperation are, inter alia, mutual respect and recognition of the role of other stakeholders, legitimacy, checks and balances in a workable and recognized accountability system, early engagement and others.

Three Negotiation Channels in 2014

In 2014 the discussion on how to manage the Internet Governance Eco-System will take place mainly in three channels which are partly interlinked.

There is first the governmental channel.

The second channel is constituted mainly by the so-called I*star organizations which manage the critical Internet resources as Internet Protocols, Domain Names, IP Addresses and Root Servers.

The third channel is the multistakeholder channel. And here there will be two main events in 2014: The Conference in Brazil in April 2014 and the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul in September 2014.

All three channels are more or less interlinked, although they are different by nature and have a different understanding and practice what "Multistakeholderism" means for them.

To enhance communication, coordination and collaboration among the various channels is one challenge for 2014. Everything is connected to everything. If the right hand is doing something on one layer and the left hand is doing something different on another layer this can have far reaching counterproductive and disastrous consequences. For players in the Internet Governance Eco-System the left hand has to know what the right hand is doing.

We know from the past that in intergovernmental organizations one and the same government — as long as issues were negotiated on the lower level — could easily have different positions because at home different ministries had different approaches.

To take just one example: The Ministry of the Interior is for more security exceptions in privacy regulations, the Ministry of Justice more in favor of strong data protection. Governmental representatives in ICANN´s GAC are coming mainly from the Ministry of Economics or the Foreign Ministry. Not all GAC members have pre-consulted with all their ministries at home before they start working on GAC advice how to include the right language into the Registrar Accreditation Agreements (RAA) where the handling of the WHOIS database raises highly sensitive security and privacy issues. Some GAC members were more on the side of their national data protection commissioner, other more on the side of the national law enforcement authorities. It was extremely difficult to reach a balanced solution satisfactory for everybody without undermining the functioning of the domain name system.

This simple case demonstrates the complexity. Regulations in a single subsystem can have unintended affects to the system as a whole which will affect also existing national and international legislation. With the further growing complexity of the Internet Governance Eco-System this could become an even bigger problem. Who can still have an overview about all the things which are going on at the same time in different circles and corners of the globe?

To follow the substance produced by the chain of the numerous Internet Governance meetings mentioned above is a big problem not only for governments but also for all the other stakeholders. However, players in this Internet world have to know what happens in the whole system. This is a precondition to understand the own specific role in this complex and interdependent mechanism and to avoid taking stupid decisions with good intentions but bad consequences.

The Ilves Commission

An important role for a further enlightenment could play the new Ilves Commission. This "High Level Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms" under the chairmanship of the President of Estonia, Tomas Hendrik Ilves, has a great opportunity. It is the right committee with the right people at the right place in the right time. Originally initiated by ICANN it is now a rather independent group supported also by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos and the Annaberg Foundation in California.

Its 22 members represent a unique set of wisdom, knowledge and perspectives at the highest level. Looking back, never before such a mixed group has been worked together and discussed the future of the Internet: A former Norwegian Prime Minister, Secretary General of the Council of Europe and Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee (Torbjorn Jageland) and ICANN´s CEO (Fadi Chehade) are sitting next to a former FCC Chairman from the USA (Robert McDowell), the Chair of the controversial ITU WCIT Dubai conference from the United Arab Emirates (Mohamed Al Ghanim), a former minister and successful Internet entrepreneur from South Africa (Andile Ngcaba) and a former CEO of Cable & Wireless (Francesco Caio). The father of the Internet (Vint Cerf), previous chairs of IAB (Olof Kolkman) and ISOC (Lyn St. Amour) and ICANNs Chair of the Country Code Domainname Organization (Byron Holland) are working together with the information minister from Macedonia, who chaired ITU´s WTPF in May 2013 in Geneva (Ivo Ivanowski) and the communication minister from Nigeria (Omobola Jonsson). Mozilla´s Mitchell Baker, Wikipedia´s Jimmy Wales, Samsung´s Won-Pyo Hong and Walt Disney´s Dorothy Atwood cooperate with Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Liu Quingfeng, a CEO from China, Virgilio Fernandes Almeida, Chair of the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee and Anriette Esterhuysen from the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) a large civil society group.

The first meeting of this group mid December 2013 in London was very encouraging. This group doesn´t fear to touch hot potatoes, there are no taboos and this are people full of imagination and creativity. Their report, expected for mid May 2014, could help to clear the air and to bring more light into the still undiscovered areas of the border- and limitless cyberspace. This commission could play a similar role as the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), which was established by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2003 and chaired by his deputy Nitin Desai. The WGIG defined Internet Governance, designed roughly the multistakeholder model and recommended the establishment of the IGF. Nitin Desai himself became later the Chair of the IGF´s MAG and the good news is that Nitin Desai himself is also a member of the Ilves Commission.

What we can expect from the Brazil conference and the Ilves Commission is a stimulating injection into the ongoing processes which will help to channel the Internet Governance discussion into the right direction. The "multistakeholder environment" is still unchartered territory and the Brazil conference as well as the Ilves report should give a push for more brave and courageous explorations of this "terra incognita".

"Multilateralism" vs. "Multistakeholderism"?

Whatever happens in 2014, it is important to avoid a constellation where the "mutilateralists" fight the "multistakeholderists". This would end in a senseless confrontational approach and could become very counterproductive for the whole world. It would be stupid to build barricades between two camps where working hand in hand is needed.

The reality of the existing and evolving Internet Governance Eco-System is rather different. There is no such contradiction between the two M-Camps because the two concepts are complementary. The discussion of the future of Internet Governance should not become a boxing event where the "blue corner" (some governments) fights the "red corner" (a rainbow coalition). It is not "right vs. left", it is not "conservatives vs progressives", neither is it "East vs. West" or "North vs. South".

The emergence of the multistakeholder model is the result of a rather natural development of an unstoppable growing complexity of societies. Simple answers do not work anymore, complex issues need complex solutions. There is no alternative than to move from the lower level of policy making to the next higher level where one has to deal with many more players and layers and interdependent issues.

The Brazil conference and the Ilves report should make clear, that the move from an intergovernmental system of the 20th century into a multistakeholder system of the 21st century is such a move from the lower Level 1 to the higher Level 2. This includes that the intergovernmental mechanisms of Level 1 do not disappear at Level 2 but are embedded now into a broader environment with more independent (global) players. National sovereignty, national governments and national interests continue to exist, but the execution of sovereignty is more complex and needs additional innovative procedures, deeper interactions, collaborative mechanisms and an understanding of a shared responsibility for the common good of mankind.

Problems can not been settled anymore by a "one size fits all" approach by one single committee, one killing switch, one telephone number, one absolute king, one president or one Internet czar. It needs an approach where on a case by case basis for each case the needed governance mechanism has to be designed individually according to the specific nature of the problem under discussion. And this needs always the involvement of the affected and concerned parties to get solutions which will work and allow a sustainable development.

Insofar it would be helpful if the Brazil conference could agree on a number of high level basic principles for Internet Governance. Such principles could help the global Internet community to have a better orientation when it moves forward. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Many "Declarations on Internet Governance Principles" has been adopted in the last years, as mentioned above and all those documents have been discussed in detail during the IGFs in Nairobi (2011), Baku (2012) and Bali (2012). A rough analysis shows that more than 80 per cent of the principles in those documents are the same. The problem is that all those documents are supported by only one stakeholder group or they are limited in their geographical scope. The opportunity of the Brazil conference is to "globalize" and "multistakeholderize" those principles.

As long as the principles are "high level", "general" and "legally non-binding" there should be a realistic chance to reach rough consensus among governments, private sector, technical community and civil society. Such a "Framework of Commitment" could become an important reference document for future political Internet conflicts, similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 which is also a legally non-binding document of very high level principles. By the way, it took nearly 20 years until the non-binding declaration was "translated" into legally binding language (in form the two human rights conventions from 1966) and another 25 years until more than 150 countries did ratify the two conventions.

The devil is in the legal details and in the political interpretation. To reach rough consensus, it would be wise if the negotiators would be clever enough to keep the devil out. There is no need to go to the details at this stage. Agree where you can agree here and now and do the "details" later. This will not solve all problems, but it will be one step forward in the right direction. As we know from history, the truth is also that the Human Rights Declaration of 1948 did not stop violations of human rights. But everybody agrees that this declaration is a very useful and important document. It would be good to have a similar document for the Internet, supported not only by the governments of the 193 UN member states but also by all the non-governmental stakeholders from the private sector as Google and Facebook, the technical community as ICANN and the IETF and civil society as APC and Human Rights Watch.

The good thing for 2014 is that now all cards are on the table. The open question is how to play this game further out. It will be an interesting year.

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus. He is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board (2013 – 2015) and served as Special Ambassador for the Net Mundial Initiative (2014 – 2016).

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance, Networks, Policy & Regulation, Privacy