Will We Ever Be Able To Solve The Internet Policy Situation?

BY KRIS SEEBURN

It has been years and many Country based, Regional and International IGFs, I wonder as to the extent we have really achieved anything in particular? ICANN also is still trying to see where they sit in all this. How active should ICANN should be or not be. The chicken and egg problem.

The problem is not about IGF’s meaning to people. Governments have their own agenda and the telecommunications industry has there’s and impacts the whole policy game. Yes people, it is a nice game to cool down the civil society heads. Universities are building policy centres and much more NGOs exist in the same landscape. The question is who is really listening and who is doing anything about something?

Anyway, the digital ecosystem and its beating heart, the “network of networks” that is the public Internet, are inherently borderless and consequently impact, and are impacted by, an increasing spectrum of international public policy just as they do daily life.  Mainly on two general edges:

 

  • the Internet is a general purpose technology (GPT), one of only a relative handful in all of recorded history; therefore, it drastically alters society worldwide through its impact on pre-existing economic and social structures; and
  • the Internet’s already enormous impact is accelerated and amplified further due to the principle of network effects.

 

Given that less than 50 percent of humanity is currently online, these two realities ensure the impact that the Internet will have on policy making, and vice versa, is only just beginning to be felt — and will escalate and accelerate more and more onto the mobile technology. Since it is becoming more prevailing that wireless can achieve faster speeds and the number of things happening has tilted the whole internet market. Why I say that is we just need to look at the number of apps and increasingly number of things you could do using a smartphone.

Africa, was considered by the big companies as a waste until they found that this is a booming area for research and development. Why? Well simply because it costs a lot of money to roll fibre connections all over the continent. As some key countries in Africa have come out of the lot such as Kenya where you can do really most of your intended usage online via mobile. It has suddenly attracted the eyes of everyone even US based companies to eye a share of this huge market. Creating more and more different analogies, such as China’s Internet of internet that will have its own policy inside the country and it’s boundary to the public internet we know. China has also proven to be another mobile market as much as India. However, we see it. The challenge is in front of our faces and we can yet do much about it. It is vested interest of profitability against morale and legislation. Where to find the real balance if the real actors don’t play ball. For China or any country, creating the internet within the internet is not impossible because really you just need and entry/exit point to the internet. You could just have a set of DNS servers and routers and have only a set of ASNs and IPv4 block and inside you could have more IPv4 A,B,C & D classes and still outlive V4 addressing again. Anyway, I will not go into a different discussion.

We need to admit that many stakeholders find it difficult to determine where to get help with key security and operational Internet concerns, especially across national boundaries. The “Internet dimension” to traditional public policy issues arose long after virtually all existing multilateral institutions were created to handle the “analogue world.” Globalization has created interdependencies between traditional policy silos, even without factoring in the further complexity added by the digital environment. Multiple agencies must address elements of a single issue to create a sustainable outcome and this naturally creates tension: if negotiating parties cannot find a path to an outcome that meets their needs, conflicts are more difficult to resolve and stakeholders are incentivized to engage in “forum shopping” the same issue in multiple venues.

The constellation of public/private and non-governmental organization (NGO)-based processes that fill key roles in the Internet’s technical management can be confusing for governments (as well as others), given the many divergent mechanisms for decision making. Conversely, multilateral agencies can prove difficult and frustrating for non-governmental stakeholders. At their most inclusive, these fora generally limit NGO participation to observation and occasional short comments when governments are finished talking. At their least inclusive, NGOs are unable to attend meetings at all or provide input in any way that can impact outcomes.

Looking back, high-profile issues such as cyber security are tackled in a multitude of institutions and processes, ranging from purely intergovernmental and formalized (such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, among others) to informal (such as conferences and multi-stakeholder collaborative environments), and the landscape is rapidly evolving.

The multilateral information and communications technology (ICT) policy framework was negotiated at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005. While the WSIS negotiation process did include elements that involved non-governmental stakeholders, such as the Working Group on Internet Governance, the decisions it adopted were fundamentally intergovernmental in nature and the follow-up process to its implementation arrogates decision making largely to governments.

UN agencies have a coordination mechanism for their activities — UNGIS (the United Nations Group on the Information Society) — as do the UN member states themselves. For all other stakeholders, there are opportunities to meet — notably at the annual meetings of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and the WSIS Forum — however, these are not policy-making fora. This asymmetry has created continuous friction among stakeholders. Let us just accept it, it is frustrating all in all. This is mainly again because of different agendas.

In contrast, the key global technical functions that make possible all communications on Internet Protocol (IP)- based networks, including the Domain Name System and various IP-related addressing systems, predate the WSIS and are managed by several non-treaty-based organizations created by non-state actors. At these organizations, all stakeholders (including governments) collaborate on policy and standards-development activities that are by design interdependent, and where a high degree of coordination between among is necessary.

 

There are persistent debates about the governance of these organizations and disagreements about the relative positions of stakeholders vis-à-vis each other in decision-making processes. The practical results of the interrelationships between organizations demonstrate that coordination across interrelated policy activities creates results that are far more than the sum of their parts.

At the time the WSIS conferences concluded, discussion of the Internet dimension of “offline” public policy issues were limited and largely related to technical subjects. Since then, digital issues have rapidly been mainstreamed into the work of policy making at the international level, but the natural silos of different subject areas have resulted in many (and probably most) stakeholders no longer being aware of where aspects of “their” issues are being addressed.

We know that no matter what, periodic calls are made for an “Internet agency” of one sort or another to centralize Internet policy. Some stakeholders (notably, but not entirely, developed countries) reject this idea as intended to allow governments to “take control” of key Internet functions and content online, while others see it as the only way that stretched policy makers, especially in developing countries, can hope to holistically influence international public policies that affect them.

The difficulties can seem unique to each community, but really, they are not: stakeholders understand and participate in the activities of the silo with which they are most concerned, but related activities outside of that silo are a different story altogether. This suggests a mechanism is needed to facilitate engagement between silos on interrelated subjects without complicating policy-making activities or creating another policy-making forum.

It is important to recognize that facilitating participation and coordination across related or interconnected issues in different fora is entirely separate from value judgments about how those processes should operate. The need for different objective outcomes has resulted in very different models of decision making. For example, development of technical standards, such as at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), ensures that barriers to entry for new participants are very low, as the objective outcomes are technical: success is much more likely if anyone with sufficient technical knowledge, good English language skills and a good idea is easily able to participate with like-minded experts.

By contrast, where different socio-economic interests have to resolve issues that do not lend themselves to a technical solution, the processes used are different: resolving values-related disputes, such as the practical application of international law related to social issues, tends to be much more formalized and rules-based and results in very different choices about which stakeholders should have what level of standing.

This differentiation is particularly important with respect to digital issues because in each thematic cluster — for example, security — there are fora that must address values-based issues and more empirical, technical issues, and the successful result of both can be strongly interdependent. As an example, negotiations about encryption have a very technical element: facilitating development of encryption standards to ensure products and services that rely upon them are in fact secure. They also have elements that are values-based: balancing the use of encryption to facilitate objectives as varied as freedom of expression, protection of intellectual property and protection of national security through access to encrypted information. No single method of working on policy suits all of these diverse objectives, but a successful result that is technically valid and socially acceptable is greatly assisted if each process or fora can interact and coordinate constructively with the work in the others.

 

WHY HAVE WE NOT SEEN A HOLISTIC RESPONSE TO THE PROBLEM?

First, the “pain threshold” of a critical mass of stakeholders in dealing with the burdens imposed by lack of coordination has not been sufficiently high to force action. The level of pain is growing alongside a significant increase in negative, political and polarized discussion of Internet issues over the last 18 months.

Second, the proposals for coordination have either failed to adequately address the political fault lines and/or meet the practical need for a holistic solution,26 and thereby sufficiently motivate both non-governmental and governmental institutions to collaborate in two key ways:

  • they are entirely voluntary, fully multi-stakeholder initiatives (which some countries won’t accept), or are entirely intergovernmental, such as new UN agencies intended to make policy (which others reject);27 and
  • they are not comprehensive enough, either:

 

– failing to inspire sufficient confidence in their likely practical effectiveness and scope; or

– unable to achieve a critical mass of participation from governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental stakeholders.

It is likely that the scales have finally reached a tipping point: a spate of high-profile terrorist and quasi-terrorist incidents in various countries, combined with high-profile hacking incidents, has dramatically increased calls for action on various cyber security fronts. Given that these incidents have often had multinational dimensions, this has led to dramatically increased interest in action to increase international cooperation on Internet issues more widely.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC): created by the UN General Assembly (1991), the IASC is a forum for UN and non-UN organizations to work together to facilitate coordination, minimize gaps in delivery and agree on shared activities and programs. It has various sub-bodies it establishes as needed, some permanent, others for specific time-bound purposes. While the “full members” of the IASC are all part of the UN system, there are “standing invitees” from the non-UN world that collectively represent several hundred entities from the largest and wealthiest NGOs to groups of volunteers.

Providing shared information sources and databases:

  • ReliefWeb is the most comprehensive humanitarian information source in the world for practitioners, aggregating information from 3,500 sources from across the humanitarian community. A one-stop portal that’s highly user configurable and which includes “push” updates, in 2013 alone it had five million unique visitors; and you might just guess how much it has today in 2018;
  • IrinNews is a news and analysis portal providing information for the wider world on humanitarian issues. Just over half its audience is not from the humanitarian community; it helps to ensure journalists and researchers have a trusted place to turn for comprehensive information on humanitarian activities, including image and video libraries as well as documentary films, all of which have been used by mainstream press outlets worldwide; and
  • humanitarian response:37 a suite of digital tools for those working on emergencies, particularly those in the field, ranging from comprehensive contact information to meeting schedules to detailed maps and common datasets.

 

Potential to a Successful Mechanism

To create a solution to the coordination problem that is both politically viable and practically useful is difficult but not impossible. The following would need to be avoided:

  • creating a new agency or intergovernmental body of UN member states with a general Internet-wide remit — this will not attract a sufficient level of intergovernmental support;
  • substantially widening the mandate of an existing UN agency or intergovernmental body or process. For the various agencies to cooperate, a mechanism that engenders trust is needed and making one the “first amongst equals” would do the opposite and exacerbate competitive dynamics that already exist;
  • disconnecting the new process from the multilateral system. The intergovernmental institutions have established mandates and collectively will be unwilling to fully participate in any process that is entirely outside the international system. For the same reason, the new process cannot be disconnected from or disenfranchise the non-IGO sector. Many aspects of international policy making with a digital dimension are decided and managed outside the UN system, ranging from the management of the Internet’s addressing systems to collaboration on prevention of crime online at EUROPOL (the European Police Organization) and INTERPOL to the London Process on spam mitigation, to name just a few examples; and
  •  duplicating existing processes or reducing their value.40 Any features that have this effect will create suspicion in all of the organizations whose participation is sought, as they will likely suspect that the new entity’s underlying purpose is in taking power from participating organizations over time.

 

Constituting a mechanism that meets three main political and practical needs.

 

  • First, it would provide a political compromise between those who want a new, classic intergovernmental organization and those who would prefer nothing new.
  • Second, it would meet the needs of both governments and the non-governmental sector in navigating the thicket of different institutions and processes with policy roles by helping them to find and understand the value in their context of the various processes that exist.
  • And third, it would create a forum where collaboration across entities could proceed in a structured, demand-driven way that would not disrupt, negatively impact or duplicate existing structures.

 

The pain threshold of actors in dealing with the increasingly complex digital environment and the policy challenges it has complicated has reached the point where investing the energy in solving the problem is less demanding than continuing to live with the status quo, as long as political and practical fault lines are avoided.

Proposals for a new intergovernmental Internet agency are already in the process of reintroduction. Providing a viable path that effectively addresses the coordination issues and facilitates greater engagement by developing countries and LDCs and their stakeholders would have substantial value. Such a counterproposal would meet the practical needs that proponents of a new “Internet agency” are looking for (although it would not meet, it must be acknowledged, some underlying political objectives for some proponents), without the negative baggage that a new policy-making agency is likely to be burdened with.

While it affects all stakeholders, developing countries and particularly LDCs have a legitimate complaint about the difficulty of participating in Internet policy across so many institutions and processes. At a practical level, there is a genuine and pressing need to address stakeholders’ calls for clarity on where to turn for best practices and technical assistance in solving practical issues.

Despite the genuine pressing needs we are all struggling with different views and opinions to break what could be logical in all sense. But unfortunately, we have to agree that Culture, understanding, knowledge and self egos play a long lasting issue in not breaking ties and we are always stall mate. I would tend to think that our children or children’s children would not be having the same issues passed over from our ignorance.

 

 

 

N.B The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official  position of the African Academic Network on Internet Policy. 

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