The Internet has changed the way the world works permanently. It has facilitated countless improvements in people’s lives all around the globe. Whether it be reducing costs of business transactions nationally and internationally, or by connecting distant communities far and wide, it is always, at least in part, thanks to the Internet.
Yet the Internet has also brought about its fair share of challenges, ranging from privacy concerns to cyberattacks.
The way the Internet runs its course is ever-changing and ever-evolving. There is not one person or entity we can pin-point and blame, because, in fact, there is no sole person or entity which runs it in the first place! How crazy is that?
So it is not really a question of what is the governing body of the Internet, but of who are the governing bodies, and why it is the way it is.
Who governs the Internet?
It is actually a pretty straightforward answer: no one.
Not a single person, company, organization, or government runs the Internet. In fact, it is a globally distributed network made up of interconnected autonomous networks (which runs with little to no human intervention and the ability to configure, monitor, and maintain itself independently.)
There is no central governing body of the Internet. Instead, each constituent network setting follows its own lead and enforces its own policies.
But even though no sole entity runs the Internet, there are still a few smaller institutions that have a bit of control.
To start, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), lead by the United Nations (UN), is a multi-stakeholder forum which promotes conversation about policy and the issues related to Internet governance.
The Internet Architecture Board (IAB) is also on board with Internet governance, created by the United States Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (try saying that three times fast!) It functions by overseeing the technical and engineering development of the Internet by the Internet Society (ISOC).
If you leave this article remembering only one thing, let it be this: ICANN is one of the biggest dogs in the Internet world. ICANN stands for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. They manage the allocation of IP addresses as well as the domain name system (DNS), which keeps track of all domain names and translates them into IP addresses. And they are also an organization responsible for coming together to govern the Internet.
Among others, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) develops and promotes a wide range of Internet standards dealing with standards set by the Internet protocol suite.
The Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) promotes the research of the evolution of the Internet by creating long term research groups working on topics related to Internet protocols, applications, architecture, and technology.
There is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 3166), which defines Internet standards.
And last but not least, there is the World Wide Web Consortium (WSC), which is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web, creating standards enabling an open platform for all. If you want to read more about security governance on the Internet, I found this article on 101domain’s blog to be quite helpful.
One of the main reasons why the Internet is not governed by any single body has much to do with disagreements among major powers. These include the governments of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China. They have consistently fought long and hard on how the Internet should be managed and controlled and whose hands it should fall into.
The US and the EU have come together in support of continuing the decentralized, multi-stakeholder process which involves governments as well as businesses and private citizens. Do you know ICANN? (I mentioned them previously if you forgot.) This is where they come into play.
So what is the difference between the term “stakeholder” and “multi-stakeholder,” you might be wondering? (I sure didn’t know the difference before my research).
A stakeholder is an individual, group, or organization that has direct or indirect interest or stake in a particular organization. They are able to influence the overall organization’s actions, decisions and policies to achieve the results they want which are best for them. Sounds simple enough, right?
Now, the multi-stakeholder is a bit different. It is an organizational framework or structure which adopts the process of governance or policymaking, motivated by bringing together the primary stakeholders like businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations (for starters) in hopes to cooperate and work together in conversation, decision making, and by the implementation of solutions to common problems or goals.
So, by the matter of that, they are not directly influencing the overall organization’s actions, decisions, and policies like a stakeholder do, but they are merely bringing all stakeholders together to participate and create dialogue.
Wow! That was a big one.
On the other hand, Russia and China are at odds with the West about this. They see the decentralized, multi-stakeholder process of the Internet as favoring the US economic and security interests primarily. This a big no-no for them. Oy vey!
Among other challenges, there are tensions between the privacy and security of the Internet. Especially after the Snowden revelations in 2013, which leaked top-secret documents showing the National Security Agency was spying on American citizens (a very scary thing), many people all over the world have made their privacy on the Internet a core concern.
Not too long ago, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) fought against the Safe Harbor agreement, maintaining it failed to provide adequate protection to EU citizens and their data in the US. Their primary argument: existing privacy protections no longer provide the same assurance they previously did.
And so if you did not know this already: things are changing (they always have been, but that is a topic for another day).
In spite of the challenges, many are seeking an agreeable solution (or solutions) to the grand scheme of things.
A growing number of international institutions are taking the Internet into account in their respective domains by incorporating Internet governance into their pre-existing institutions. For instance, in 2012, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming “the same rights that people have offline must be protected online,” as described here.
Additionally, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) took up cybercrime by initiating a draft study to examine any country’s ability to tackle and fight it.
Norms are being developed for cybersecurity as well. Because cybersecurity risks and attacks are becoming increasingly commonplace (and governments are struggling to prevent and fight it), the United States among others have attempted to promote norms of responsible behavior on the Internet.
However, other countries have different ideas of what “responsible behavior” entails. For instance, the US and many other NATO countries believe the laws of armed conflict apply to the Internet world, too, but Russia and China actively promote the idea of “cyber sovereignty” instead.
Needless to say, people are attempting to come together to make the best of the Internet—to reap its benefits and sow its misfortunes. But it is not an easy process. As per usual, we all have different ideas, but we must work together to find a common solution … this, of course, takes time.
True Tamplin is a technology specialist, author, and public speaker. He writes on a broad range of technical topics including search engine optimization, cybersecurity, and technology relating to the internet.