Since its origins over 30 years ago, the Internet has become a major new global telecommunications infrastructure. It is no wonder, then, that it has become a central topic in the more general discussion being held under the auspices of the Information Society. A World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was first held in December 2003 in Geneva. At that Summit, a number of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were discussed, focused on harnessing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for the benefit of the world’s population. The Internet, seen as a prototype for the technologies that would underlie the Information Society, understandably became a focal point (and a flashpoint) of discussions. Ultimately, in response to debates over the concept of “Internet governance”, a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was established, with the objective of defining the term and providing input to the second phase of the World Summit, planned for Tunis in November 2005. The Working Group released its report on 18 July 2005 and offered a definition of Internet governance as well as some options for approaches to it. The primer you have before you is intended to provide background on the Internet and its operation as a contribution to the dialogue underway in preparation for the next Summit.
The Internet is a global, distributed system of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of independently operated and interconnected computer communication networks. All of these networks use a standard set of protocols, sometimes referred to as the TCP/IP protocol suite. TCP and IP are the core protocols of the Internet and had their origins in research sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1973. It is a system that, by design, is relatively insensitive to national boundaries.
For most of its existence, the Internet has been developed in the private sector with very light oversight on the part of the U.S. Government. The official roll-out of the system occurred on 1 January 1983 in the U.S. and at locations in the UK and Norway. By 1994, the Internet was becoming available to the public through commercial networks, and by 1995, a collection of commercial, interconnected public Internet backbones had replaced the private, U.S. Government-sponsored backbone. The scene was set for the so-called “dot-com boom” of the late 1990s. During this period, massive amounts of capital went into “Internet” companies, many of them bereft of serious business models other than a plan to go public. By April 2000, the bubble had burst. But the Internet continued to grow, even during the financial winter following the madness. Amidst the hyperbole, some very successful Internet businesses thrived or were born (e.g., Amazon, eBay, Google). Not counting early research in the 1970s, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) arrived in 1993 but did not really take off until 10 years later, threatening to disrupt the century-old business model of the local and inter-exchange carriers. As the network and its applications became more widespread, and as the global economy began to rely upon its operation, governments began to realize that this new infrastructure, and what was done with it, might be tactically and strategically important to the well-being of their citizens.
The Government of Tunisia called for the second phase of WSIS, not focused solely on the Internet, but on the more general notion of a global economy interlinked in a web of information and the ability to process it with powerful, programmable and often portable tools. As the discussions unfolded in Geneva in 2003 and in regional fora, debates ensued as to the meaning of “governance” in this online environment. Particular focus was placed on Internet governance and the role that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) plays in that arena.
In the course of the WSIS debates, there have been calls for increased governmental oversight and even regulation of the Internet. It is important to recall that this is a network of hundreds of thousands of networks, not a single entity run by a single organization. It has operating components around the world. It has over a billion users. It is, by design, distributed and its components operated by a vast range of government, private sector and academic organizations. Few would dispute the importance of the Internet and its content to a wide swath of modern society. It is therefore vital that in the debates surrounding the perceived abuses of the Internet, we do not destroy all that is so beneficial in this system of systems.
One of the central reasons for the Internet’s success thus far has been its largely apolitical management. It seems important that any modifications to the general oversight and operation of the Internet avoid unnecessary and disruptive politicization. The Internet should remain a key infrastructure and not become a political football, subject to disputes between or among countries. We should build on the existing systems and bodies that have thus far served the Internet community with reasonable success. With few exceptions, most of the public policy issues associated with the Internet lie outside the purview of ICANN and can and should be addressed in different venues. For example, ‘spam’ and its instant messaging and Internet telephony relatives, ‘spim’ and ‘spit’, are pernicious practices that may only be successfully addressed through legal means, although there are some technical measures that can be undertaken by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and end users to filter out the unwanted messages. Similarly fraudulent practices such as ‘phishing’ and ‘pharming’ may best be addressed through legal means. Intellectual property protection may, in part, be addressed through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and business disputes through the World Trade Organization (WTO) or through alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation and arbitration.
As these examples suggest, there can be little doubt that the development of a global Information Society will require extraordinary cooperation, collaboration and coordination. The Internet and its many players illustrate this observation and draw attention to what is possible when a spirit of cooperation can be fostered in the long term.
Only through understanding the full range of players in the Internet arena, their roles, responsibilities, authorities and limits of capabilities can we fashion reasonable outcomes for Internet governance and, more generally, an agenda for the development of an Information Society. This primer represents contributions towards the dialogue that is needed to frame Information Society goals and the methods to achieve them. The participants in these dialogues have an opportunity to help shape a constructive approach to the opportunities before us. We can but hope that they will take up the challenge and pursue the MDGs in a positive and successful fashion.
Vinton G. Cerf (India)
Chairman of the Board, ICANN