People who bother about how the internet works are called members of the “internet community,” which is a little like the “Lebanese community” in that they share something intangible and mostly historical but quarrel over everything else. Their unifying totem used to be a passionate rejection of rules imposed by anyone — business, government, over-sized actors — in favour of bottom-up conventions.
They ensured a lack of dominance by any one authority through a sort of managed chaos, settling on a form of multipolarity, which recognizes the internet’s many interested parties with the suitably unruly moniker of “multistakeholderism.”
Multistakeholderism is most easily defined by what it is not: It’s not governmental, parastatal, or U.N. regulation of the internet. An amorphous set of forums, discussions, assemblies and quasi-organizations, it moves and turns like a slightly punch-drunk murmuration of starlings through the international policy environment.
The sheer number and composition of these groups creates some level of assurance that nothing will happen too fast — for good or for bad — and that there are enough adults involved that governments can rest easy about being only one of many stakeholders.
But while a multistakeholder model has no center, if pressed, the community admits to one particularly large starling — which has the relative size and airborne grace of an aging turkey — called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the California company that manages the whole international Domain Name System (DNS).
ICANN, itself a composition of various stakeholder groups, is drifting closer to United Nations oversight. This takeover risk is not unexpected, since the General Assembly has long asked for more authority over the shared resource and magic engine economic growth they believe the internet to be.
What is unexpected is that that some major U.S. internet companies may be the ones to deliver it up to governments that are not always champions of light-touch regulation. The result will be a long-term, sustained risk to the U.S. tech sector, and the Trump administration isn’t yet doing much to help.
The truth, seldom discussed, is that the multistakeholder architecture is as unwieldy as the ponderous name that dignifies it. Despite the inclusive creation myth (summarized above), it has a keystone: ICANN at the center, and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as the moat and battlement that protect it.
But the IGF bulwark has been so imperfect in how it protects ICANN that senior members of the business community, including some of the largest internet, cloud and software companies in the United States, are thinking of draining the mote and dropping the drawbridge.
They see no value in defending the IGF anymore, not because internet governance is on an even of keel or because the sailing looks smooth. Why are these large, measured companies willing to take a leap into the unknown by ceasing to bolster the IGF?
The first reason is that they do not believe the effect will be severe. Here they suffer from a failure to do even basic scenario planning: By withdrawing support to and participation in the IGF, they will implicitly cede the field. Intellectual content and impetus from Menlo Park or Seattle will be replaced by governments from across the Pacific or in the Middle East that have declared their intent to make the IGF’s work more prescriptive, and which have the necessary funding to do it.
The second reason U.S. tech is losing faith in the IGF is that it has become like a spoiled child in need of discipline; a child who, having for years been told it was the treasure of its parents, turns in contempt to the very hands that feed it. It is an open secret that the IGF’s governing politburo picks favorites, doesn’t worry too much about fairness and reserves the microphone to the loudest participants rather than those that stress responsibility, foresight and measure.
Some $500 billion tech companies have therefore come to believe their contributions to the IGF and, by extension, to internet governance, will only be useful until such time as a few shrill voices in the IGF turn against them. But showing them the error of their ways only works if they stay on. By walking away, all they’ve lost is the child and the years of effort that went into shaping them. Worse yet, children remember the slights more than the kindnesses.
Third, U.S. tech has allowed itself to believe that the grass is greener elsewhere. If they can’t address internet governance at the IGF because of all the noise-making, they believe it’s possible to make a contribution through inter-governmental forums. But this is the worst of the conceits, because Amazon is not a member state of the U.N. (yet), and in these forums, companies participate at the pleasure of governments.
Even with the most committed support of the U.S. government, tenuous as it is in the continuing absence of senior leadership, the multilateral process will quietly crowd out the voices of U.S. tech. How do we know? Because multilateral forums were designed to give Nauru the same voice as France or Russia, and many companies from outside the U.S. will be glad to cheer on their governments to drive rules that “rebalance” the playing field.
Two things must happen to avoid collapse of the current, functional, and U.S.-led internet governance environment. First, the U.S. government must take an active role in unifying industry in an effort to change the IGF into something that works for all stakeholders, business included; a task that requires a focus from the State Department on the options, risks and the solutions available.
Second, civil society must design itself a vehicle to drive organized collaboration with companies. If they do not, they will be the last ones sitting around the IGF’s table and any power will have moved on from their hands. The target will then be the irrevocable, de jure multilateralization of ICANN and the internet it manages.
Gregory Francis is the managing director of Access Partnership, which has helps some of the world’s leading technology and infrastructure organisations shape policy outcomes and introduce new services and products into previously under-served markets.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.