Debating the future of the internet

So far the internet has been able steer clear of excessive government control but the pressure is increasing and the stakes are very high.

The debate about the control of the internet is intensifying, with interesting discussions expected later this year in Dubai at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) conference organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Over the last 25 years the industry has moved from being mainly telephony-based to being mainly IP-based, and many say that what is now at stake is the future of the internet as we know it at this point in time.

On the one hand we were lucky that the internet in its current format was invented by academics and innovative independent entrepreneurs rather than by governments and the vested commercial interests. Furthermore, the various elements of the internet are built by private companies and as such are also owned by them – very little ‘internet ownership’ is in the hands of governments. The internet would never have been developed if it had been left to governments, telcos or the international institutions around them.

The reality now is that the political stakes of the internet have risen significantly. On the one side there are the community forces that would like to keep it free, as in free of (excessive) government interference; while on the other side there are the conservative and less democratic forces who want to see more control over the internet – with the clear undercurrent that they want to limit the (perceived or real) control of the internet held by the USA.

In this politically charged environment there are several forces at work in and around the internet:

  • vested interests want greater regulation on content and copyright (SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, ACTA, TPP)
  • technologically-advanced nations are now also using it for cyber warfare;
  • several developing economies and in particular non-democratic countries want to assert greater control over it;
  • other countries want greater protection for children and other vulnerable people in their societies;
  • the internet community wants to keep it as free as possible from national or international interference.
  • commercial interests in this trillion-dollar industry

So, in looking at the future of the internet, and to establish whether the current political interference in it puts the internet at risk, we have to unravel these issues, since in many cases they have been deliberately interwoven in order to disguise hidden agendas or other underlying issues.

There are a range of interests at play here; they include: the internet community, American interests, commercial interests, other developed economies, developing economies and international institutions.

A positive outcome of these discussions could be to look at the internet community and see how these organisations can be used to play more of a leadership role. Once the internet community organisation is properly funded and stocked with the right international people to manage what is needed to watch over internet governance it will be an excellent partner in the broader community of international organisations.

There could be arrangements that, for example, see organisations such as UN, UNESCO, ITU, WTO, WIPO and others to either become directly involved in, or affiliated with, the internet body, and they could work together to address the many different elements involved in internet governance, including issues around copyright, privacy, child pornography, cybercrime, cyber warfare and so on.

Within such an environment it is also possible to untangle the debate and assess:

  • the control issue – does that indeed exist, and if so who has control and who does not, and does it matter?
  • properly separate issues such as infrastructure, content, cultural differences, etc. and organise proper management of those issues by the most relevant organisations.
  • assess what falls under local jurisdictions and what requires international arrangements.

Most issues do not require international consensus, and processes that do require it should be kept to a minimum anyway. But the overarching aim should be to keep the internet as free as possible within the international fabric that it has created around it.

Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.  

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