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In public discussions or Internet governance, only two organizations feature much: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, founded in 1998, and the Internet Governance Forum, set up in 2005. The former performs the crucial technical role of ensuring that the domain name system that allow humans to enter a word-like Internet address and computers to translate and route it to a numbered device continues to function correctly. The second...well, it hosts interesting conferences on Internet governance.

Neither is much known to average users, who would probably guess the Internet is run by one or more of the big technology companies. Yet they're the best-known of a clutch of engineering-led organizations that set standards and make decisions that affect all of us. In 2011, the Economist described the Internet as shambolically governed (yet concluded that multistakeholder "chaos" is preferable to the alternative of government control).

In a report for the Tony Blair Institute, journalist and longstanding ICANN critic Kieren McCarthy considers that much of Internet governance as currently practiced needs modernization. This is not about the application-layer debates such as content moderation and privacy that occupy the minds of rights activists and governments. Instead, McCarthy is considering the organizations that devised and manage the technical underpinnings that most people ignore. These things matter; the fact that any computer can join the Internet and set up a service without asking anyone's permission or that a website posted in 1995 is remains readable is due to the efforts of organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Society, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and so on. And those are just part of the constellation of governance organizations, well-known compared to the Regional Internet Registries or the tiny group of root server operators.

As unknown as these organizations are to most people (even W3C is vastly less famous than its founder, Tim Berners-Lee), they still have decisive power over the Internet's development. When, shortly after February's Russian invasion, a Ukrainian minister asked ICANN to block Internet traffic to and from Russia. ICANN, prioritizing the openness, interconnectedness, and unity of the global network, correctly said no. But note: ICANN, whose last ties to the US government were severed in 2016, made its decision without consulting either governments or a United Nations committee.

McCarthy's main points: these legacy organizations do not coordinate their efforts; they lack strategy beyond maintaining and evolving the network as it stands; they are internally disorganized; and they are increasingly resistant to new ideas and new participants. They are "essential to maintaining a global, interoperable Internet" - yet McCarthy finds a growing list of increasingly contentious topics and emerging technologies that escape the current ecosystem: censorship, content moderation, AI, web3 and blockchain, privacy and data protection, If these organizations don't rise to those occasions, governments will seek to fill the gap, most likely creating a more fragmented and less functional network. Even now this happens in small ways: four years after the EU's GDPR came into force many US media sites still block European readers rather than find a compliant way to serve us.

From the beginning, ensuring that the technical organizations remain narrowly focused has been seen as essential. See for example the critics who monitored ICANN's development during its first decade, suspicious that it might stray into enforcing government-mandated censorship.

The guiding principles of new governments are always based on a threat model. The writers of the US Constitution, for example, feared the installation of a king and takeover by a foreign country (England). Internet organizations' threat model also has two prongs: first, fragmentation), and second, takeover by governments, specifically the ">International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations agency that manages worldwide telecommunications and which regards itself as the Internet's natural governor. Internet pioneers still believe there could be no worse fate, citing decades of pre-Internet stagnation in the fully-controlled telephone networks.

The ITU has come sort-of-close several times: in 1997 ($), when widespread opposition led instead to ICANN's creation, in the early 2000s, when the World Summit on the Information Society instead created the IGF, and in 2012, when a meeting to update the ITU's regulations led many, including the Trade Union Congress, to fear a coup, Currently, concern that governments will carve things up surrounds negotiations over cybersecurity,

The approach that created today's multistakeholder organizations is, however, just one of four that University of Southampton professors Wendy Hall and Kieron O'Hara examine in their 2021 book, The Four Internets and find are being contested. Our legacy version they dub the "open Internet", and connect it with San Francisco and libertarian ideology. The other three: the "bourgeois Brussels" Internet that the EU is trying to regulate into being with laws like the Digital Services Act, the AI Act, and the Digital Market Act; the commercial ("DC") Internet; and the "paternalistic" Internet of countries like China and Russia, who want to ringfence what their citizens can access. Any of them, singly or jointly, could lead to the long-feared "splinternet".

McCarthy concludes that the threat now is that Internet governance as practiced to date will fail through stagnation. His proposal is to create a new oversight body which he compares to a root server that provides coordination and authoritative information. Left for another time: who? And how?


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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