Viewpoint: Changing the way the internet is governed is risky

Internet user Many people may be unaware that the US Department of Commerce has the power to decide how the internet works

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Governance is the establishment and enforcement of norms, rules and decision-making procedures. It is not the "law" as such, but rather a structure by which everyone agrees to abide, which can be captured locally by specific laws.

One of the most successful examples we have of governance on a global scale is that which affects international waters, where a United Nations agency called the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) handles the treaties and conventions defining how everyone must behave.

For the reason I'll come to shortly, I recently began asking people: "Who do you think should govern the internet?"

Most have replied that the internet should not be governed at all; it's fine as it is, and any suggestion that a UN agency might adopt the role provokes snorts of derision.

I find myself having to explain that the internet is already governed, even though most think it is not.

US control

It's important to realise that without governance the internet could not function.

Consider something as simple as web names and addresses. In order to avoid two different web sites having the same name, there is an organisation called the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which decides on who may use a name, although this is delegated down to regional organisations.

At present, the governance of the internet is effectively done by multiple stakeholders. What is less well appreciated is that the final approval on much of what is decided by these organisations is formally within the gift of the United States Department of Commerce.

The internet overseers

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)

Charged with producing technical documents to influence the way people design, use and manage the net.

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann)

Defines policies for how the domain name and IP (internet protocol) address number systems should run to ensure the net's system of unique identifiers remains stable and secure.

Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (Iana)

Assigns net address endings (generic top-level domain names), and coordinates the allocation of IP numbers. The organisation is run by Icann.

Internet Society (Isoc)

Lobbies governments to ensure the internet's technical standards are open and non-proprietary, so that anyone who uses an application on it in a certain way has the same experience. It also promotes freedom of expression.

Number Resource Organisation (NRO)

Supervises five regional internet registries which distribute IP numbers. It is also charged with protecting unallocated IP addresses from misuse.

Internet Research Task Force (IRTF)

Promotes research into the long-term development of the internet.

Internet Architecture Board (IAB)

Oversees the process used to create internet standards and considers complaints about the way they are executed.

This fact has remained relatively low profile as the Department of Commerce adopted an arms-length relationship with the stakeholder organisations.

However, the formality of the power structure was thrown into stark relief when the US government under George W Bush intervened directly on the subject of .xxx domain names, and then moved responsibility for certain naming from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (Iana) to Icann.

The fact that the US government ultimately "controls" the internet is something that many find an anachronism when the internet is a global phenomenon, and one which many countries' economies are becoming increasingly reliant upon.

UN intervention

Not surprising then that there is a growing movement to transfer governance of the internet to a body that is not under the control of any one nation. Also, not surprisingly, different nations are introducing their own agendas.

During a UN summit in 2003 in Geneva, the subject was hotly debated, but the US refused to relinquish control of the Root Zone file, which is basically the key to governing the internet. So entrenched were the positions that the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, formed the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG).

The idea was that WGIG would report on a solution acceptable to all but would move governance to an international body. I doubt anyone will be surprised when I tell you that the debate has continued ever since, and the objective of coming to some conclusion in 2006 looks no more likely six years on.

This has led to a great deal of frustration amongst the non-US political blocs, and 2012 looks like the year when the most powerful intend to bring the mater to a head.

Power struggle

The Russians, closely followed by the Chinese, are pushing for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), another UN agency, to be given responsibility for internet governance.

It looks increasingly likely that Russia and others will attempt to use an ITU conference in December 2012 to wrest as much control as possible from the US.

Internet graphic Russia, China and India suggest giving the UN responsibility for many aspects of internet governance

I suspect the final outcome will be a classic compromise where the US retains control of some key aspects.

Whilst I agree that governance of the internet should not remain with any one government, I find the idea of a UN agency being responsible daunting.

The UN IMO has been a success in enabling everything from free flow of shipping to providing a focus for fighting piracy, but the speed at which UN organisations converge on an agreement can be described only as glacial.

The internet requires altogether different timescales. A great advantage of the current governance structure is that it supports rapid developments, provided that the US Department of Commerce remains at arm's length.

Innovative internet

The internet has now reached a size where it tends to develop more like a living organism, and whatever governance structure is agreed needs to accommodate this.

Rather like a town planner putting down grass, watching where people chose to walk and then paving the pavements, internet governance needs to help the internet evolve rather than dictate how it must develop.

The one area in which this does not necessarily work is security.

So, all those who spend their time railing against any regulation of the internet should perhaps consider not "if" the internet should be governed, but "who" should govern it.

It's happening, and what we really need to avoid is establishing something that will stifle the innovation that has made the internet such an exciting environment.

Alan Woodward is a visiting professor at the University of Surrey's department of computing. He has worked for the UK government and still provides advice on issues including cybersecurity, covert communications and forensic computing.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Nobody should govern the internet.
    Nobody *can* govern the internet.
    Government is, these days, a byword for deceit, corruption and self-servitude.
    Any & all attempts to 'govern' the internet are the last desperate attempts of global corporate hegemony to cling on to power.
    It is how they got found out. Of course they'd like to control, sorry, 'govern' it.
    They know they can't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    The internet should not be "governed" = "regulated" at all.

    We have too much "government" and political interference already.

    Now for something more important.

    Can we have HYS on the disgrace of the war veterans who are not getting seats to attend the opening of the Bombar Command memorial?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Whilst I'm not entirely happy the way it's managed I'm at a loss to suggest who you could trust it to instead. Maybe an organization like CERN which is multinational and has people who actually understand the internet could oversee it. The UN is an appalling idea, they can't even act on genocide when it's staring them in the face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    No one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    #73 You either haven't learned from history or wilfully miss the point.

    In a totalitarian regime (how else would you describe people who want to make this kind of move) it doesn't matter whether you are innocent, boring or a hermit once you give this power over they will use it against you someday.

    Give them an inch and they always take a mile. Its an immutable fact of political life

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I agree that no one should govern the internet. I wouldn't trust my government one single millimetre over privacy and there are a lot worse governments out there.

    I'm tired of the same "Lets make it safer" arguments put forward. I would feel a lot safer if governments and other busy bodies weren't peering into to every aspect of our lives.

    Quite simply no one is trustworthy enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.


  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Who is the voice for the public here ? Well, we pay our internet access fees to ISP's , so it seems logical that they should be rallying on our behalf and in our best interests? Why isn't this happening ? I hate to hear again that the US ultimately control the on/off switch - howabout an independant here doing something about that ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    The real beauty of the internet is there is always more than one route.

    The BBC may act like a communist dictatorship but there is always elsewhere to go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I just don't care.
    I know I should but I really doubt I have ever done or will ever do anything of interest to anyone other than myself and half a dozen others on the internet.
    If some poor sod wants to read all my e-mail best of luck to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.


    The Internet was going about 30 years before Sir Tim developed the World Wide Web. I suggest you read up about ARPANET

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    No one should have ultimate power over the internet and to even think about it is just silly. Can everyone please just stop being silly, thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The Internet was an example of how Capitalism would function in practice. Marxists, Communists, Socialists... or more broadly "Statists", can't allow such an example to exist, because it draws a contrast with their shared vision for the world, which is one utterly opposed to Capitalism - They must control it to destroy it, just as they have destroyed much of the world today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Virtually all the comments are closed on this site.

    Why do i think the moderators go down the "Wood Lane" wine Bar at 4pm?

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    It doesn't matter who "should" do it. It simply can't be done. It's an amalgamation of hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of machines sharing an infinite amount of information. There will always be a way, and I believe there always SHOULD be a way, to share and obtain information freely.

    You can't stop the signal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Sir Tim Berners-Lee didnt invent the internet, It evolved from Arpanet which was originally connected University of California, Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute. TCP/IP adoption was what bought a bunch of networks together to form more of what we see today. What Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented was what we see as WWW, he was at MIT at the time. But I think the UN should have control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    It sounds like a toss up between Team America World police - and the KGB + Chinese polit bureau combined. Not a nice choice to have to make.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I suspect that our fine upstanding 'leaders' would LOVE to rule sorry 'govern' the 'net.
    Which is why they are currently getting set to snoop and spy on the entire population.
    Can I still say "tewwowist thweat"? Stay in your homes citizens....

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Some kind of UN body which ensures that human/civil rights cannot be breached and sites cannot be censored in any way would be good.

    Of course this would anger our government who try to block file sharing sites, and China who try to block pretty much everything, but that is because they are both violating people's rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    62. DaHindu: I think the question is why do others want control (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia I am sure it is not to promote and enhance the communication abilities of their people & human rights within those countries.
    You know damn well if the UN get control it'll go to hell in a handbasket real quick.


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