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Internet Way of Networking 18 December 2020

Don’t Institutionalize the Internet

By Constance Bommelaer de LeusseFormer Vice President, Institutional Relations and Empowerment
Juan PeiranoDirector, Technical Policy

This opinion piece was originally published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

As the United Nations turned 75, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the General Assembly by calling for a New Global Deal to ensure that political and economic systems deliver on critical global public goods. “Today, that is simply not happening,” he said. “We have huge gaps in governance structures and ethical frameworks. To close these gaps, we need to ensure that power, wealth and opportunities are broadly and fairly shared.” 

At the Internet Society, we couldn’t agree more. But just what will this ‘New Global Deal’ and its governance structures look like with regards to digital cooperation? Let’s make sure that traditional, top-down governance of the Internet is not the answer.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored just how much we depend on the Internet and its distributed governance model. Because the Internet is a network of networks, its resilience is largely due to the planning, swift action, and cooperation of its interconnected participants.

And we are just at the beginning of the journey, with only 51% of the world’s population currently able to access the Internet. To get the remaining, unconnected half online, we need collaborative bottom-up coordinated action.

While living online is the new normal during the pandemic, it is local network operators with knowledge of local needs that will make the difference. Solutions such as community networks and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) can help improve local Internet traffic exchange, drive connectivity costs down, and raise the quality of service.

As Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the Internet Society, has said, the “Internet is a deeply human technology.” And for citizens to fully take advantage of this opportunity, it is key for them to be involved in multistakeholder process that will define their livelihood. Decisions about humanity’s future cannot be made far away from its doorstep within closed multilateral processes.

At the 2019 Internet Governance Forum (IGF), Guterres warned that the goal of an accessible, free, secure, and open Internet was at risk of fracturing along three intersecting lines: the digital divide, a social divide, and a political divide. To this end, he spoke of the need to “elevate” the IGF, and he announced that he would soon appoint a Technological Envoy to help advance international frameworks. At the time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that “multilateralism” (state-led decision-making) must be the basis for any further development of new technologies.

Such statements could be cause for concern, if they are not surrounded by plans for multistakeholder participation. It is not solely governments that should lead discussions regarding the future of the Internet. A state-centered approach to Internet governance would be detrimental to safeguarding an open, trustworthy, and secure Internet for all. 

Maintaining a multistakeholder approach will keep diverse actors at the table and mobilize them to create the Internet we want rather than the one we fear. Rather than institutionalize Internet governance, we need to do quite the opposite.

As a network of voluntarily connected networks, the Internet changed the course of history because people agreed to work and innovate together. This is what we call the Internet Way of Networking. It’s a deeply inspiring accomplishment. If the UN is to stay relevant in its mission, countries should commit to protecting the Internet’s foundation and keeping it open to everyone.

So, our plea is this: don’t institutionalize the Internet. That would curtail innovation and dent its resilience. We need a strong, open, globally connected, trustworthy and secure Internet to remain the incredible resource it is today. We also need it to grow, ensuring access for all so that it can continue evolving as an innovative force for good.

Image by Matthew TenBruggencate via Unsplash

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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