Can the internet be governed and if so by who?

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If all goes well, on September 30, 2016 the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which currently coordinates the maintenance and management of much of the Internet including the global Domain Name System (DNS) and associated protocols, will no longer be managed as public corporation under U.S. Government contract.

ICANN will instead survive as some form of international organisation, a process which in terms of staffing and oversight, as well as operations, has already begun to a limited extent. 

Heretofore, ICANN and its key department, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), have functioned on behalf of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Prior to ICANN’s 1998 formation, IANA was contracted by the US Department of Defence.

What will be different about the Internet on the October 1, 2016? According to ICANN’S current CEO Fadi Chehade (a U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent) there should be nothing noticeable to the average netizen. In his address at the Cyberspace Governance Forum, convened as part of the World Internet Conference that was held in this picturesque traditional Chinese water-town this past week,  Chehade affirmed that the Internet has long evolved as a trans-national phenomenon that will continue to challenge the capacity of international organisations and national governments to effectively regulate it.

There are some voices today who believe the Internet can, even must, evolve without any coordinated, much less centralised, governance system. Such views are not, however, supported by those in authority around the world. There is rather an emerging global consensus that the threats of an unregulated Internet, from cyber-terrorism to fraud, from the scourge of online paedophiles to the extreme possibility nefarious parties accessing nuclear response codes, are altogether too great to allow for such a laisse-faire approach.

The question then is not whether there should be some form of global governance of the Internet, but rather in what form should it take. While it may be that few have an absolute vision in this respect, there are clearly a range of views coalescing around contrasting calls for a “multilateral” versus “multi-stakeholder” approach.

While there are no clear boundaries between the two camps the former, championed by China, India and Russia among others, essentially signifies that Governments will remain as the final arbiters, while the latter, seemingly favoured by the U.S. as well as institutions such as ICANN, at least implies a more inclusive approach.

In his carefully measured key note address opening the Wuzhen Conference, Chinese President Xi Jiping clearly articulated his country’s multilateral vision of “a global internet shared and governed by all” based on four international principles:

* Respect for Cyber-sovereignty;

* Collective preservation of Peace and Security;

* Promotion of Openness and Cooperation; and

* Ensuring Online Order.

To realise these principles the Chinese President further made five proposals, being the:

* Collaborative building of global cyber infrastructure and promote inter-connectivity;

* Establishment of online platforms for cultural exchange and mutual understanding;

* Innovative development of cyber economy for common prosperity;

* Engagement in common efforts to ensure orderly development based on the assumption that maintaining cyber security is the common responsibility of the international community; and the

* Setting up an Internet governance system.

President Xi went on to observe that for the global cyberspace governance system to be fair and reflective of the wishes and interests of the majority of people around the world, countries must jointly formulate the rules for global Internet governance.

At the Conference, President Xi’s proposals were endorsed by Russian Prime Minister Karim Masimov and a handful of additional, mostly Central Asian, leaders present. But while the Conference was well attended by a broad cross section of major private sector as well as international organisation stakeholders, high level representation on the part of many governments was absent, suggesting caution as well as a lack of current consensus at the political level.

With 10 major forums and 22 scheduled breakaways over its two and a half day duration much of the discussion at 2nd World Internet Conference revolved around technical innovations and commercial possibilities rather than political issues.

In this respect China is eager to promote the Wuzhen Internet Summit as an annual must show event to rival the World Economic Forum’s Davos Summit. Whatever the issue, in whichever forum, there was however one consistent pattern that this author could not fail to notice here Wuzhen – the virtual absence of African speakers, as opposed to delegates, at the event.

We came, we listened and we networked, but we were essentially marginal participants, an unfortunate but perhaps accurate reflection of our continent’s current lack of a shared digital age agenda, as well as collective capacity. With over 100 million Africans, including up to a million Batswana, online our lives are being shaped by the Internet every day. But, for the most part we remain as passive consumers rather than active shapers of the technology. One prediction from the conference is that within the next decade most industrial processes will be digitised and globally integrated. In this respect, as Africans we are far from where we need to be to effectively take part in the ongoing global conversation that will determine our future online peace and prosperity.

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