Let the Internet Be the Internet

Now that the Internet has become a keystone of global communications and commerce, many individuals and institutions are racing to jump in front of the parade and take over its governance. In the tradition of all those short-sighted visionaries who would kill the goose who lays the golden eggs, they seem unable to understand that one reason for the Internet’s success is its unique governance structure. Built on the run and still evolving, the Internet governance system is a hearty hybrid of technical task forces, Web-site operators, professional societies, information technology companies, and individual users that has somehow helped to guide the growth of an enormous, creative, flexible, and immensely popular communications system. What the Internet does not need is a government-directed top-down bureaucracy that is likely to stifle its creativity.

The call to “improve” Internet governance was heard often at the United Nations (UN)–organized November 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, which was a followup to the December 2003 summit in Geneva. Although many different topics were on the agenda in Geneva and Tunis, by far the largest amount of controversy (and press coverage) was generated by debates over Internet governance. The summit participants had very different ideas about how the Internet should be managed and who should influence its development. Many governments were uncomfortable with the status quo, in which the private companies actually building and running the Internet have the lead role. One hot-button issue was the management of domain names, which today is overseen by the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an internationally organized nonprofit corporation. A number of countries feel that the U.S. government exerts too much control over ICANN through a memorandum of understanding between ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce. As a result, a number of proposals were put forward to give governments and intergovernmental organizations, such as the UN, more control over the domain-name system.

But the debate over ICANN was just part of a much bigger debate over who controls the Internet and the content that flows over it. At the Geneva Summit, a UN Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was created to examine the full range of issues related to management of the Internet, which it defined as “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 programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”

This definition would include the standards process at organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), as well as dozens of other groups; the work of ICANN and the regional Internet registries that allocate Internet protocol addresses; the spectrum-allocation decisions regarding WiFi and WiMax wireless Internet technologies; trade rules regarding e-commerce set by the World Trade Organization; procedures of international groups of law enforcement agencies for fighting cybercrime; agreements among Internet service providers (ISPs) regarding how they share Internet traffic; and efforts by multilateral organizations such as the World Bank to support the development of the Internet in less developed countries. (A very useful summary of the organizations shaping the development and use of the Internet has been created by the International Chamber of Commerce at http://iccwbo. org/home/e_business/Internet%20governance.asp.)

The main reason why the Internet has grown so rapidly and why so many powerful applications can run on it is because the Internet was designed to provide individual users with as many choices and as much flexibility as possible, while preserving the end-to-end nature of the network. And the amount of choice and flexibility continues to increase. Because there are competing groups with competing solutions to users’ problems, users, vendors, and providers get to determine how the Internet evolves. The genius of the Internet is that open standards and open processes enable anyone with a good idea to develop, propose, and promote new standards and applications.


The governance of the Internet has been fundamentally different from that of older telecommunications infrastructures. Until 20 to 30 years ago, governance of the international telephone system was quite simple and straightforward. Governments were in charge. In most countries, they either ran or owned the monopoly national telephone company. Telephone users were called “subscribers,” because like magazine subscribers they subscribed to the service offered at the price offered and did not have much opportunity to customize their services. When governments needed to cooperate or coordinate on issues related to international telephone links, they worked through the ITU.

The model for Internet governance is completely different. At each level, there are many actors, often competing with each other. As a result, users—not governments and phone companies—have the most influence. Hundreds of millions of Internet users around the world make individual decisions every day, about which ISP to use, which browser to use, which operating systems to use, and which Internet applications and Web pages to use. Those individual decisions determine which of the offerings provided by thousands of ISPs, software companies, and hardware manufacturers succeed in the marketplace and thus determine how the Internet develops. Users’ demands drive innovation and competition. Governments already have a powerful influence on the market because they are large, important customers and because they define the regulatory environment in which companies operate. Because the Internet is truly global, there is a need for coordination on a range of issues, including Internet standards, the management of domain names, cybercrime, and spectrum allocation. But these different tasks are not and cannot be handled by a single organization, because so many different players are involved. Another difference is that unlike the telephony model, where a large number of telephony-related topics (such as telephone technical standards, the assignment of telephone country codes, and the allocation of cellular frequencies) are handled by the ITU, an intergovernmental organization, most international Internet issues are dealt with by nongovernmental bodies, which in some cases are competing with each other.

In many ways, the debate over ICANN and the role of governments in the allocation of domain names can be seen as a debate between these two different models of governance: the top-down telephony model and the bottom-up Internet model. In the old telephony model, the ITU, and particularly the government members of the ITU, determined the country codes for international phone calls, set the accounting rates that fixed the cost of international phone calls, and oversaw the setting of standards for telephone equipment. National governments set telecommunications policies, which had a huge impact on the local market for telephone services and on who could provide international phone service.

Today, Internet governance covers a wider range of issues, and for most of these issues the private sector, not governments, have the lead role. In contrast to telephony standards, which are set by the ITU, Internet standards are set by the Internet Engineering Task Force, the World Wide Web Consortium, and dozens of other private-sector–led organizations, as well as more informal consortia of information technology companies. However, some members of the ITU, as part of its Next Generation Networks initiative, are suggesting that the ITU needs to develop new standards to replace those developed at the IETF and elsewhere.

Likewise, the ITU is not content to have the price of international Internet connections determined by the market. For more than seven years, an ITU working group has been exploring ways in which the old accounting rates model for telephony might be adapted and applied to the Internet. Ironically, the ITU pricing mechanism has already had an effect on the Internet. Exorbitant international phone rates, which can be more than a dollar per minute in some countries, have given a big boost to the use of voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) services, which allow computer users to make phone calls without paying per-minute fees. During the time that the ITU has been discussing ways to regulate the cost of international Internet connection, in most markets the cost of international broadband links has plummeted by 90 to 95%. This apparently was not good enough for many WSIS participants, who insisted that regulation was needed to bring down user costs.


WSIS participants also offered a number of proposals to have governments and the ITU take a larger role in regulating the applications that run over the Internet. For instance, several governments called for regulatory action to fight spam and digital piracy, protect online privacy, enhance consumer protection, and improve cybersecurity. Of course, Internet users and managers are addressing all these issues in a variety of ways, and a robust market exists for security tools and services. As a result, users have many options from which to select what works best for them. In contrast, some governments are talking about the need for comprehensive, one-size-fits-all solutions to spam, digital rights management, or cybercrime. Imposing this kind of rigid top-down solution on the Internet would have the undesirable side effect of “freezing in” current technological fixes and hindering the development of more powerful new tools and applications. Even more disturbing, in many cases the cure would be worse than the disease, because solutions proposed to limit spam or fraudulent content could also be used by governments to censor citizens’ access to politically sensitive information.

The debate over Internet governance is really about the future direction of the Internet. One outcome of the Tunis Summit was the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a multistakeholder discussion group that will examine how decisions about the future of the Internet are made. Those advocating a greater role for governments in managing the Internet will continue to press their case at the IGF. The debate over ICANN will provide the first indication of where the discussion is heading. If a large majority of governments decide that ICANN should be replaced by an intergovernmental body or that government should have more say in ICANN decisionmaking, we can expect to hear more calls for greater government regulation in a wide range of areas, from Internet pricing to content control to Internet standards.

Fortunately, the Tunis Summit also exposed many government leaders to a broader understanding of how the Internet is governed and how it can contribute to the well-being of people throughout the world. They learned that the ICANN squabble is a relatively minor concern among the challenges that confront the Internet. The farmer in central Africa, the teacher in the Andes, or the small merchant in Central Asia does not care about where ICANN is incorporated or how it is structured. But they care about the cost of access and whether they can get technical advice on how to connect to and use the Internet. They care about whether the Internet is secure and reliable. They care about whether there are useful Internet content and services in their native language. And in many countries, they care about whether they’ll be thrown in jail for something they write in a chat room.

As the national governments, companies, nongovernmental organizations, and others involved in WSIS work to achieve the goals agreed to in Tunis, they should use the organizations that are already shaping the way the Internet is run. The existing Internet governance structure has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to solve problems as they arise. Rather than discarding what has proven successful, world leaders should be trying to understand how it has succeeded, explaining this process to stakeholders and the public so that they can be more effective in participating in the process, and using the lessons of the past in approaching new problems. For instance, the IETF has set many of the fundamental standards of the Internet, and it is in the best position to build on those standards to continue improving Internet performance. As more people want to participate in standard setting, the IETF needs to explain to the new arrivals how it operates. To help in this effort, the Internet Society has started a newsletter to help make the IETF process more accessible and to invite input from an even larger community. The IETF is open to all. It is in not even necessary to come to the three meetings that the IETF holds each year, because much of the work is done online.

Other Internet-related groups are also eager to find ways to ensure that their work and its implications are understood and supported by the broadest possible community. They should follow the IETF example by making standards and publications available for free online and by publishing explanations of what they do in lay language. They could convene online forums where critical issues are discussed and where individuals and government representatives could express their views. As part of the preparation for the June 2005 World Urban Forum in Vancouver, the UN staged HabitatJam, a three-day online forum that attracted 39,000 participants. It could certainly do the same for Internet issues.

Ten or 15 years ago, when the Internet was still mostly the domain of researchers and academics, it was possible to bring together in a single meeting most of the key decisionmakers working on Internet standards and technology as well as the people who cared about their implications. That is no longer possible, except by using the Internet itself. The Internet Society is already starting to reach out to other organizations to explore how such public events could be organized.

Before trying to reinvent Internet governance, those who are unhappy with some Internet practices or who see untapped potential for Internet expansion should begin by using the mechanisms that have proved effective for the past two decades. The Internet continues to grow at an amazing pace, new applications are being developed daily, and new business models are being tried. The current system encourages experimentation and innovation. The Internet has grown and prospered as a bottom-up system. A top-down governance system would alter its very essence. Instead, all who care about the Internet need to work together to find ways to strengthen the bottom-up model that has served the Internet and the Internet community so well.

Two years ago, at a meeting of the UN Information and Communication Technologies Task Force in New York, Vint Cerf, the chairman of ICANN, said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Some people have misinterpreted his words to mean that nothing is wrong and nothing needs to be fixed. No one believes that. We have many issues to address. We need to reduce the cost of Internet access and connect the unconnected; we need to improve the security of cyberspace and fight spam; we need to make it easier to support non-Latin alphabets; we need to promote the adoption of new standards that will enable new, innovative uses of the Internet; and we need better ways to fighting and stopping cybercriminals.

The good news is that we have many different institutions collaborating (and sometimes competing) to find ways to address these problems. Many of those institutions—from the IETF to ICANN to the ITU—are adapting and reaching out to constituencies that were not part of the process in the past. They are becoming more open and transparent. That is helpful and healthy, but we need to continue to strive to make it better. In particular, it would be very useful if funding could be found so that the most talented engineers from the developing world could take more of a role in the Internet rulemaking bodies, so that the concerns of Internet users in those countries could be factored into the technical decisions being made there.

The debate about the future of the Internet should not begin with who gets the impressive titles and who travels to the big meetings. It should begin with the individual Internet user and the individual who has not yet been able to connect. It should focus on the issues that will affect their lives and the way they use the Internet. Most of them do not want a seat on the standards committees. They want to have choice in how they connect to the Internet and the power to use this powerful enabling technology in the ways that best suit their needs and conditions.

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Cite this Article

Nelson, Michael R. “Let the Internet Be the Internet.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 3 (Spring 2006).

Vol. XXII, No. 3, Spring 2006