Governance of the Internet

by Thomas Nauer

The architecture of cyberspace is based on technical standards that essentially define our world. Thus standardization is some sort of governance and during this session an attempt was made to define and map this governance, or at least the architecture that constitutes Internet governance. The three panelists are all deeply involved in the standards process: Timothy Schoechle, International Center for Standards Research, University of Colorado, Fred Baker, chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and Jean-Franois Abramatic, chair of the World Wide Web Consortium.

For Timothy Schoechle, there is a basic conflict in two major approaches to governance: the use of law and the use of self-regulation. The latter is common in the United States, while the former is more preferred within the European Union. The actual governance of the Internet is hiding in the form of technical architectures which are defined by standards bodies. They are dominated by private entrepreneurs, by corporations, and by groups of people that get together and make technical standards. Schoechle's thesis is that the voluntary consensus standards process could contribute to solve broader governance issues. The underlying concept is the notion of the "public sphere." Currently, discourse on policy is about either the public sector (government) or the private sector (individuals and private companies); this dichotomy omits the most important element, namely the public sphere (as described by the German political philosopher Jodrgen Habermas) which overlaps both of them. It emerged from ideas generated in public discourse in coffee houses during the 17th/18th century resulting in solidifying the concepts upon which our modern society is based. The public sphere consists of private parties gathering in a public place discussing ideas of mutual interest, completely apart from government. This notion serves as an excellent definition of a standards committee. Yet some difficulties remain, e.g., how to involve more people, like users and the general public in the process? Standard bodies are often comprised of technical people from corporations, rather than members of the public as a whole.

Organizations like the IETF designed most of the infrastructure protocols that are used on the internet, wherever it might be. Or, as Fred Baker sees it, "The Internet is not international, it's anational: it ignores the existence of nations." It is only recently that the IETF became involved in broader governance issues, e.g. in the context of the so called "Raven process" that dealt with privacy issues raised when engineers from various companies started working on a variety of gateway controllers to insert wiretaps into the network. But would this provide solutions to subvert other countries or competitors networks? Privacy and democracy are not an issue the IETF wants to work on, but doing something that does not promote them turns the Internet into something that people cannot use.

Jean-Franois Abramatic discusses the term "governance." In his understanding it has to do with French-style centralized power rather than the decentralized structure of the Internet society. He also counters allegations that the W3C is a closed and opaque organization. The members of W3C are companies, not people as it is the case with IETF, therefore the structure appears less clear. And, like the Information Society, the W3C is based on networks, rather than hierarchy. This could be illustrated with its four different domains of activity (User Interface Domain, Technology and Society Domain, Architecture Domain and Web Accessibility Initiative) and its recognition of the international nature of the globe. Hence, Jean-Franois preferred to think of the World Wide Web Consortium as a meeting place facing huge challenges in terms of technology. He said there is no chance for success if communities concerned with its decisions are not involved. And to achieve this, there is a long way to go.