To a growing majority of the world’s people, the internet is omnipresent, easily accessed, and full of use-ful/less information. To most, the internet is a benign presence that we really don’t spend that much time thinking about. That is a problem.
In an effort to further lay the groundwork of the basic issues at stake in the digital rights debate, it is vital to discuss internet governance. While this may sound like a dull topic, it is anything but. Let me explain to you why.
All of that looks vaguely familiar, yes?
In order for the vast network of interconnected computers and servers around the world to communicate, certain standards must be created. Naturally, this process needs to be upheld by some governing body, so a group was created in the United States in 1998 called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
The naming of something is incredibly important. By doing so, you define something, you locate the specificities of what it is, and in doing this, you attach meaning. Once something is named, it is hard to un-name it.
Now, why is this important? In her book, Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon explains ICANN’s work like this:
“It run’s the world’s domain name system, or DNS. …Web pages, e-mail, and other applications hardly just float in space; their data actually resides on computer servers physically located somewhere. When you type a web address into your browser, you expect to get the same website no matter what kind of browser or device you are using, and no matter where in the world you happen to be. When you send an e-mail to a particular address, you want it to go to the same person no matter where in the world you’re sending it from and where that person is located. Every computer server or network has an IP address. The trick to making everything work is to make sure that all of the domain names used by everybody all over the world all correspond to the same IP addresses. IF there is a discrepancy, then a single globally interoperable Internet will be ‘broken’.”
And yet, the architecture of the internet as it is being created is turning into a restrictive internet. Multi-stakeholderism, the governance structure of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), among others, is creating the key foundational decisions shaping the internet. In The Real Cyberwar: A Political Economy of Internet Freedom, Professor Shawn Powers argues that these governing bodies are strong representatives of the private sector in the Western world—particularly the United States, and the infrastructure they are building is often helping these corporate interests rather than the interests of the people.
These governing bodies, these organizations that are naming and defining the internet around us, are subject to the whims and powers of some of the largest technology companies in the world. Standing behind those companies are some of the most powerful countries in the world, especially as, here in the United States, corporations and politics are tightening their grip on each other. If you believe that the mission of these internet governance organizations are to help build the infrastructure of a free, open, and neutral internet for every citizen of the world, then you, like me, will be sadly disappointed.
So, why does any of this matter?
The internet is something that is constantly evolving and expanding, leading to small openings in which real creative and political disruption can take root. The way in which the internet is being constructed and controlled will not only impact our day-to-day usage but create larger ramifications on how our very society itself is shaped and governed.