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Internet Governance 3 September 2014

What Do You Mean When You Say 'Open Internet'?

Sally Shipman Wentworth
By Sally Shipman WentworthVice President of Global Policy Development

By Lyman Chapin, Interisle Consulting Group Founder and Principal, and Sally Wentworth, Internet Society Vice President, Global Policy Development

This week at the IGF, many discussions will focus on how to develop Internet public policies in a wide range of areas in support of an “open Internet.” Janis Karklins, chair of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), answers his own question about why so many people are coming to Istanbul: “The answer is clear,” he states, “all of these stakeholders care about maintaining a free, open, interoperable, stable, secure and trustworthy Internet.”  

As a general statement, this is undoubtedly true; but what has made the IGF particularly important over its lifespan is the observation that “all of these stakeholders” do not necessarily agree on what all of those adjectives mean. And, this should not be viewed as a weakness of the IGF; on the contrary, this degree of diversity of opinions is encouraged and is seen as its core strength.

In particular, the terms “open Internet” and “openness” have been used so often that everyone thinks they know what they mean, and assumes that everyone else means the same thing when they use them. Because openness is the key enabling principle of the Internet as a system that includes users, applications, and infrastructure, understanding what it means—and what it does not mean—is an essential prerequisite for the discussion of critical technical, economic, social, and political issues at the IGF.

The idea that the Internet is an “open” limitless system is not new, and certainly did not arrive with the current debate about the organization, processes and forums of Internet governance. James Mwangi, in the Foreword to the March 2014 Dalberg Global Development Advisors report “Open for Business? The Economic Impact of Internet Openness,” has this to say about the history and importance of openness:

“We take the capabilities of today’s Internet for granted, as though it was inevitable it would evolve in this way. But in the early days of the Internet, few people knew how profoundly this technology could transform our lives. We’ve witnessed growth that would have been impossible to predict, growth that can only be understood in the context of one essential attribute of the system: the openness of the network. Since its emergence, the Internet has remained an open platform, allowing any of us to innovate, create new services and tools, share freely and widely, and access all of the products and services that others have made available…Without openness, many of the services and tools we rely on in our daily lives would not be possible.”

Advocates of an open Internet are sometimes miscast as proponents of an “anything goes” anarchical approach that would sweep aside the rule of law and other norms of human behavior in favor of “permissionless innovation.” But in the Internet, openness is about opportunity, not ideology: it is about the opportunity for students, entrepreneurs, creators, and inventors to explore, try and test new ideas and new business models without asking permission from any established gatekeeper. Openness is not about promoting the social or political values of one group over others. It is freedom, not disorder. The open Internet enables an environment of social and economic growth and empowerment not because its supporters relentlessly assert “openness is good,” but because openness confers extraordinary tangible benefits that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain:

  • As a tangible network infrastructure composed of hosts, routers, service providers, protocols, and many other technical components, the Internet is optimized for interoperability—peer components interact with each other without extensive prior configuration because information is shared openly, and every developer and operator has open access to the externally visible behavior of each element of the Internet system.
  • As an operational infrastructure that relies on the voluntary participation of many different parties to manage its independent parts, the Internet is an open society of individuals and organizations that fulfill their separate local missions by collaborating to make the global Internet work.
  • As an innovation engine that supports the development of new technical standards and policy initiatives, the Internet succeeds because openness, in terms of transparency, access, and participation, brings the best ideas to the table, distributes them widely, and engages everyone in the process of turning them into new services and applications that enhance the quality of life in all corners of the world.

Openness and multistakeholder participation have consistently walked hand-in-hand and they should continue to do so. Openness can ensure that values like transparency, access and participation – all unique characteristics of a multistakeholder environment – are met and sustained; at the same time, multistakeholder participation strengthens the idea of openness by encouraging a diversity of competing ideas and opinions. At the IGF, there is not a specific topic on openness. But, the entire set of discussions, addressing issues, which range from local content to privacy, network neutrality or new technologies are all essential about openness. This is why we all need to start deliberating on and trying to understand better the value, role and contribution openness has to the Internet and its governance structures. 

To read more about Openness, the Internet Society published a white paper, “The Open Internet: What it is, and how to avoid mistaking it for something else.”

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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