What is internet governance?

Internet governance refers to the rules, policies, standards, and practices that coordinate and shape global cyberspace.

  • The Internet is a vast network of independently managed networks, interwoven by globally standardized data communication protocols (primarily, Internet Protocol, TCP, UDP, DNS, and BGP).
  • The common adoption and use of these protocols unified the world of information and communications like never before. Millions of digital devices and massive amounts of data, software applications, and electronic services became compatible and interoperable. The Internet created a new environment, a complex and dynamic “cyberspace”.
  • While Internet connectivity generated innovative new services, capabilities, and unprecedented forms of sharing and cooperation, it also created new forms of crime, abuse, surveillance, and social conflict. Internet governance is the process whereby cyberspace participants resolve conflicts over these problems and develop a workable order.

The exposure of controversial U.S. surveillance methods, like spying on certain foreign leaders, has sparked a global discussion on internet governance. Some countries want to use this scandal to lessen America’s control over key internet processes managed by the U.S. based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees unique identifiers like IP addresses and domain names. However, the conversation on internet governance covers a wide range of issues, from freedom of speech to trade, privacy, cybersecurity, and national sovereignty.

What is internet governance?

Internet governance involves the collaboration of governments, the private sector, and civil society, each playing their part, to establish shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that influence how the Internet develops and is used.

This definition was crafted by the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) back in 2003. During the initial phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the UN Secretary-General tasked the multistakeholder working group, WGIG, with pinpointing and defining the public policy issues relevant to Internet governance. The WGIG report put forward recommendations regarding the approach to be taken on Internet governance policies, including the establishment of an Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

Also read: UN Internet Governance Forum to be held in Riyadh in December

Also read: ICANN 80 preview: How to create a sustainable internet?

What is the internet governance forum?

The IGF was set up by WSIS in 2005, with the inaugural global IGF happening in Athens in 2006. Unlike making decisions, the IGF acts as a space for discussion, ensuring that developing nations have the same chance as wealthier ones to join the conversation on Internet governance. Its goal is to create a platform where diverse stakeholders, including civil society, business and tech sectors, governments, and academia, can openly discuss both new and ongoing Internet governance issues. Anyone interested can take part in the IGF, and it’s free to get accreditation. Involving all stakeholders, whether from developed or developing countries, is crucial for the Internet’s future development. The IGF typically draws 1500-2200 participants from various backgrounds to discuss policy matters related to the Internet, such as maximizing opportunities, spotting emerging trends, and tackling risks and challenges. It collaborates closely with the Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries.

The global IGF is held annually, usually in the last quarter of the year. In 2015, it was hosted in João Pessoa, Brazil. The 2016 IGF is scheduled for December 6-9 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The forms of internet governance

Internet governance, distinct from government, addresses issues in cyberspace that traditional national institutions may struggle to handle. Governance suggests a more decentralized, cooperative approach involving standards developers, network operators, service providers, users, governments, and international bodies. This approach aims to solve problems while preserving cyberspace’s openness and interoperability.

In understanding Internet governance, we draw on institutional economics, which categorizes governance into markets, hierarchies, and networks. Markets involve private transactions and pricing. Hierarchies rely on authority, like state enforcement or organizational control. Networks are voluntary systems allowing collaboration among interdependent actors. Internet governance blends these structures, incorporating self-governance by market players.

National policies significantly shape the Internet’s evolution, but cyberspace’s unique nature fosters new institutions and governance mechanisms. These dynamics inform our analysis of Internet governance, emphasizing cooperation and adaptation to address emerging challenges and opportunities.

Who are the internet governance actors?

According to the definition, there isn’t a single authority ‘running the show’ for the Internet. Instead, a range of players – governments, international bodies, businesses, tech experts, and civil groups – all have a hand in guiding its development and use.

Today, a variety of entities are involved in overseeing the internet, forming what we call the internet governance ecosystem. This includes UN agencies, groups like ICANN and the IETF, the Internet Governance Forum, tech companies, and non-profit organisations.

The Digital Watch observatory sorts these players into different categories: academia and think tanks, businesses, civil society, governments, international bodies, tech experts, and global organisations. Sometimes, one entity can fit into more than one of these groups.

Other terms: Digital policy, digital governance, cyber governance, internet policy

More than a decade after WSIS, the idea of ‘internet governance’ remains open to various interpretations. In the realm of public policy discussions, practitioners often use different terms interchangeably, such as digital policy, digital governance, cyber governance, and Internet policy.

The debate over interpretations mainly revolves around the scope of the term. Some argue that cybersecurity falls under internet governance, while others see it as a distinct field. Similarly, opinions vary on whether it solely concerns ICANN-related matters like domain name and IP address management, or if it encompasses a broader range of internet-related public policy issues.

At the Digital Watch observatory, we use ‘internet governance’ and ‘digital policy’ as overarching concepts. These cover more than 50 internet public policy matters, grouped into seven categories: infrastructure, security, human rights, economic, development, legal, and sociocultural.


Iris Deng

Iris Deng, an intern reporter at BTW media dedicated in Fintech and Blockchain. She is studying English at Hangzhou Dianzi University. Send tips to i.deng@btw.media.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *