Global Internet Governance: Who Controls the Internet?

Folgender Beitrag entstand während des Global Economic Symposiums, das am 4. und 5. Oktober 2011 in Kiel stattfand. Alle Artikel sind auf zu finden.

The Internet affects the lives of everyone of us. So the question arisis if there is a global internet governance is neccessary. One of the very first panels on wedneyday was called “Internet Governance Structures” – a “pretty esoteric topic” as one of the persons on the stage named it.

The development of the internet is pretty different to those of other forms of communication like the telephone. In the latter case politicans took up the topic and made laws concerning communication via phones. In contrast to this there are no laws in internet development. Moreover the nature of the internet is a decentralized, whereas politics are centralized authorities. Therefore a “world government of the internet” cannot be the answer.

Political Interest Conflicts

There emerges a clash of cultures: Should a global governance be implemented bottom up by a self-organizing community or should it be a top down policy. Usually there is a separation between policy and people. This does not work anymore for the internet, where users are involved in the policy-making process.

Of course, a global governance means to include all countries. But how to find an agreement if the party’s interests are very different. The best example for this is the cencorship and the “Great Firewall” in China, that shows that in politically unfree countries, technology can be used for controlling its own population: “This is an inherent problem.”

Freedom or Differentiation?

Freedom in the internet leads sooner or later to the hot topic net neutrality, which means that internet providers or governments are not able to restrict the access for consumers. In other words: “We have to make sure that there is a single internet. No matter if I log on in Hamburg, Hongkong or New Zealand, I should be able to access the same internet.” Even the godfather of the web, Sir Tim Bernerns-Lee, was cited, who said that “the best practices should include a neutrality on the web”.

The latest innovations seem to speak for freedom in general and net neutrality specifically. “Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page didn’t ask for permission to develop Facebook and Google.” This working process can be summarized in the saying “innovation without permission”. In that sense openness and freedom of the internet are crucial factors and the driving forces for new ideas. “This is extremely important from user perspective.” (But this view was called “overglorfied” in the panel).

Nevertheless the concept of net neutrality is not a value everybody shares. ”Currently the net is not as neutral as many people think.” No net neutrality means in reverse differentiation. It was argued that such a differentiation doesn’t have to be neccessarily a contradiction to the users’ welfare: If there are different types of services (= the supply widens) the consumers can be better of. For example there would be a higher price for higher bandwidth, whereas the price is lower for a slower connection. Another possibility are to restrict the speed or the download volume, since only relativly few people are responsible for much of the traffic. But the fear arised: What happens if users have to pay (more) to get access to certain parts of the net?

New Business Models

The internet didn’t only revolutionize communication for consumers. Also, it changed the business modells for communication companies fundamentally. In the past it based on the provision of availability of the core infrastructure, like the telephone network. Today the firms make profit by their applications and services. The problem seems that investments in infrastructure could be missing. “An open and free internet will not work when infrastructure is not implemented.” Since nearly two billion people worldwide are online and mobile broad band connection is increasing there are investmens in infrastructure needed in order to keep the environment open: “Good infrastruce is the starting point.”

Sooner or later every discussion about internet policies tackles the ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. An accusation to this US-based institution is that the US has too much influence, despite reforms in the last years: “The US would have the power to influence.”

Many Discussions Lie Ahead

Despite the GES is supposed to be a solution forum, practical solutions for a global internet governance seem to be far away. Too many questions remain unanswered: Which values are important? How to weigh freedom vs. business interests? How to build the bridge from free to unfree countries? One of the discussion participants said: “There needs to be significant further debate about the priorities”. Or like Bill Clinton said: “Internet governance is stumbling forward.”

I guess there will be a couple more Global Economic Symposiums needed until to find a solution, but one thing seems clear: Because the internet is so innovative, the governance answers have to be, too.

Participants in the panel:

Johannes M. Bauer, Professor, Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media, Michigan State University

Peter Dengate Thrush, Executive Chairman of Top, Level Domain Holdings

Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor for International, Communication Policy and Regulation, University of Aarhus

Lorenzo Maria Pupillo, Executive Director, Public Affairs Unit of Telecom Italia


Bryan Glick, Editor in Chief,

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