An essay written for the International Institute of Strategic Studies (www.iiss.org), February 2016
Is the multi-stakeholder model a viable way forward for Internet governance?
"We pay too little attention to the reserve power of the people to take care of themselves. We are too solicitous for government intervention, on the theory, first, that the people themselves are helpless, and second, that the government has superior capacity for action. Oftentimes, both of these conclusions are wrong."
- Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States (1923-1929)
The Internet as we know it today has roots in the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution and the inventions that came into being as a direct result of research and development into computational technologies by a diverse range of commercial, academic and governmental groups. This essay will address the role that combined technological contributions and shared governance has had on the development of the Internet since its inception, and speculate on how Internet governance for the future may best develop.
Arguably, modern-day computation started with the Babbage Difference Engine, proposed by Charles Babbage in his paper of 1822 to the Royal Astronomical Society which took the often tedious and painstaking process of calculation by hand into the realm of automation. Over the next hundred years, computing developed from simple arithmetic into complex machinery with real-life applications, growth of which was driven by the twin engines of commerce and war through hundreds, if not thousands of contributors across a multitude of sectors. By the time World War II began, computation had reached a point where these applications of computing culminated in the development of the Colossus series of computers at Bletchley Park and subsequently the Bombe, used to decrypt German communications and which made a huge impact to the war effort.
Bletchley Park's NI1b and 'Room 40' government agencies were not the only organisations to develop significant advancements in computation around that time. Commercial organisations, and those affiliated to but standing independent from government, also drove progress. For example, free from Bletchley Park after the war ended, Tommy Flowers, the inventor of Colossus, re-joined the Post Office Research Station throughout the 1950s subsequently helping to develop ERNIE, one of the world's first random number generators, a successor of which is used today to pick Premium Bond winners; he and his team also developed hitherto unknown pulse modulation techniques for telephone exchanges. Across the Atlantic, IBM were busy with a multitude of projects, from the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (the 'Harvard Mark I') in 1944 to 1956 when IBM were busy pioneering disk drives in their San Jose laboratory. The transistor was invented in 1947 by a team at Bell Laboratories; the EDSAC, a paper-tape computer was built in 1949 at Cambridge University. From hand-held mechanical calculators to trackballs, the acceleration of progress in computing was marked, driven both by commercial and government interests, and with significant contributions from academic institutions and individuals too.
We can deduce then that the impetus for research and development into early computing was sourced from not one controlling entity, but by a vast array of experts working for a variety of causes. This understandably led to a plethora of competing standards and protocols in the field. For example, TCP/IP was invented in 1974 independently from UDP in 1980, but both each able to handle Internet traffic (with key differences). Early console-type computers such as the Acorn Electron, ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 competed in the commercial marketplace, and the rough-and-tumble of commerce drove manufacturers to produce bigger and better solutions.
IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, who administered top-level DNS servers for the Internet, came into being after calls for regulation from key players in the development of the new World Wide Web such as Vint Cerf and Jon Postel. IANA was a not-for-profit American corporation, however it was financed by DARPA funds that originated from the US Government. When the U.S. Science Foundation tried to hand over control of IANA to a private US corporation, Network Solutions, there was a backlash from Internet users who felt that the Internet would be in jeopardy of losing its freedom and independence, a period referred to as the 'DNS Wars' and which lasted until the creation of ICANN.
Today, there exists a tension and ongoing argument surrounding ICANN, who administer top-level domains on the Internet. This tension arises from the American nature and location of the ICANN organisation - with the Internet today being truly global, many nations feel that top-level Internet administration should rest with a global organisation not so closely tied to one particular country. Following the expiration of the original 11-year contract created at the transition between IANA and ICANN, as of October 1 2009, ICANN became a private (albeit American) organisation, not directly controlled by the US Department of Commerce.
Let us look at the alternative. Governments have a track record of interfering with or prohibiting new technology to progress their own goals or ideals. This has early historical precedents; on the invention of the printing press early in the 15th century, Arabic imams in the Ottoman Empire banned the printing press on religious grounds, with the first press in the region not established until 1729. More recently, the United Arab Emirates threatened to ban Blackberry mobile phones unless the encryption keys were provided to the government by the manufacturer. Today, Google Street View remains banned in Greece and Austria on privacy and national security grounds, and there is an ongoing argument playing out in the media between Apple and the U.S. Government about provision of technology to break the previously uncrackable iPhone on iOS 9.1 in the name of fighting terror.
Is this the kind of Internet we would like to strive towards in the West? The obvious answer is no. Freedom remains a founding principle of the constitution of the United States; while not enshrined in a UK bill of rights, it remains a foundation of UK culture; in the rest of Europe, freedom is a given in most, if not all member states. Single ownership evidently leads to unitary control; unitary control leads to censorship and limitations on individual freedom. The current multi-stakeholder governance and development models must be kept and nurtured then, both to allow people the freedom to express and share their opinions without fear of reprisal and to keep up the pace of technological progress.
Effective governance of the Internet in the future is a doubtful proposition. While social media is thriving, greater tectonic shifts are underway and the future of the Internet looks to be moving at an accelerated pace, not just towards mobile but towards wearable and embedded devices - the so-called 'Internet of Things' (IoT). With devices such as the Fitbit monitoring heart rate, exercise, sleep patterns, food intake and even sexual activity, and this data sharable to a mobile app, traditional website and via social media to friends and family, how does a government effectively regulate the use of such a device?
Current tools such as the UK Computer Misuse Act 1990 (with revisions) are beginning to look hopelessly traditional and outdated. Section 3A of the Act, for example, prohibits the supply of articles that may be used to commit offences as defined in the other sections of the Act. Does this mean computer manufacturers may be committing an offence? What if a wearable device such as a smartwatch was used to record video that was later used to commit an offence - does this render the manufacturer and retailer liable to prosecution? The Computer Misuse Act has no reference to IoT concepts such as wearables, or embedded domestic environmental controls such as the NestCam.
With encryption now commonplace in e-commerce and a move towards encryption as a standard protocol, governments are left without means to enact surveillance or control of Internet users. Even with the advanced tools available to specialist government departments (such as GCHQ and MI5 in the UK and the NSA in the USA), as the current Apple debate shows, governments are a long way off from maintaining control of Internet activity.
This increasing lack of ability to govern the Internet is a welcome move. Historical examples have shown that hobbling free-market technological progress or imposing excessive governance driven through state-driven paranoid megalomania simply doesn't work. Printing presses came about despite the government; the early Internet, funded by DARPA, exploded into the public domain. Despite the USA banning the export of encryption software, so did encryption, and progress into technologies such as the IoT in the future will happen despite, not because, of state intervention. Regulatory and governance powers as they exist today cannot be effectively exercised when governments fail to keep up with the pace of technology.
Through examining the history of computing, the present state of governance and the attractiveness of the multi-stakeholder model, it is clear that the only viable path forwards is to maintain the multi-stakeholder model.
As it has always done, commerce will provide the infrastructure. End users will continue to provide the advertising revenue that powers the engine of growth. Although the content of Internet may be tainted by commercial interests, it should remain a domain where ordinary people are free to speak, create, criticise, trial, explore and imagine. It should remain an invention that we can use to communicate with each other, building bridges, doing business, exploring new places. Ceding control of Internet governance to single organisations, whether governmental or commercial, would be disastrous - North Korea provides the example of poor state governance, and the negative impact that Facebook has had on Internet impartiality provides the commercial example.
Government does, however have a role. State governance should guide development, in much the same way that banks of a river guide the flow. Governments should step in only when necessary to curb the worst excesses of complete freedom; where existing laws are broken online, the government should support the prosecution of offenders under existing legislation. If commercial interests cause significant disruption with negative connotations or consequences, governments could introduce rules or caps to limit the influence that such commercial giants have on the rest of the online population. If governments want to encourage technological progress, then from a governance perspective they would be well advised to stand aside and let today's entrepreneurs, scientists, tinkerers, academics, hobbyists, experimenters and ordinary users provide the driving force.
We are some way from the Internet transforming from a free-market commercial Utopia into a philanthropic reflection of the best aspects of humanity, driven by altruism, enthusiasm, compassion and a wish to improve the human condition. It may never happen. But over-regulation through consolidation and seizure of Internet control is not only the wrong answer to a question that should never have been asked; it would be disastrous, severely limiting economic, social and cultural outlooks globally.