Governments and governance

Daniel Weitzner of the W3C says that the era in which Internet technology design can pretend to be neutral to public policy is over.

5 min read
A United Nations task force recently held a two-day workshop on the question of who governs the Internet. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan challenged those of us present to ensure that the Internet and the World Wide Web support "the cause of human development."

Following in the long-standing tradition of skepticism about governments in the Internet community, some in the technical community and the Internet's chattering classes view the concerns expressed by the United Nations and countries such as Brazil, India and others, as a threat to the operation of the Internet itself. A CNET News.com report noted that "the result (of the meetings) could dramatically reshape the way the Internet is run and put an end to some of the informal, collaborative processes that exist today."

Now is the time for the Internet community to face the fact that the entire world has an interest in the way that the Net is designed and how it operates.
Is the sky falling? Are all packets going to have to be routed through U.N. headquarters? Unlikely. So what's the worry?

The fact that governments and the United Nations are worried about control over the Internet should be taken as the most sincere form of flattery. The fact that governments and nonprofit groups from South Africa, Pakistan and Korea want the Web to make a contribution to eradication of poverty should signify the importance of this new communications infrastructure.

Finally, the fact that some countries are worried about the sudden free flow of information into otherwise closed societies should be hailed as a great victory for the decentralized architecture of the Internet and the extraordinary opportunities for publishing and sharing information afforded by the World Wide Web.

Increased involvement of the United Nations and groups such as the International Telecommunications Union does have its downsides, such as the bureaucratic desire to enhance the power of existing institutions struggling to find a place in the Internet era, and panic by groups oriented toward traditional telecommunications services fast being displaced by Internet-based voice over Internet Protocol services.

There are a few governments that would like to pervert Internet architecture into a system that squelches, rather than frees expression. While we must be on our guard against all of these dangers, now is the time for the Internet community to face the fact that the entire world has an interest in the way that the Net is designed and how it operates.

Some of the motivation for this recent round of United Nations discussions has to do with frustration over the operation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), particularly with regard to the management of the so-called country code top-level domains, such as .ca, .fr, .br, .cn, .us, and the like. ICANN is engaged in a long-term reform effort, but though increased accountability of ICANN is important, this alone will not satisfy governments. Simply put, the era in which the Internet technology design can pretend to be neutral as to public policy and social needs is over.

This is no longer a job for engineers alone and no longer simply a question of making the packets flow to their appointed destinations.
That does not mean that we should shift design control to the United Nations. (No one there seems to be either offering or threatening to do this.) It does mean that we must work to be sure that technical standards-setting venues are truly responsive to social as well as technical needs from around the world.

At the World Wide Web Consortium, we have actively collaborated on technical design with national governments, consumer organizations, and, of course, business users. W3C's Platform for Privacy Preferences benefited enormously from participation of government regulators (from more than 10 countries), privacy advocacy groups, and the commercial sector. Through collaboration between technologists, governments and representatives of user constituencies, our Web Accessibility Initiative produced widely used technical guidelines to ensure that the Web supports access by people with disabilities.

W3C's ongoing work on security, including the foundational work in digital signatures and encryption done jointly with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), has been guided by dialogue with governments so that the technology meets legal requirements for authentication and data integrity. Finally, W3C's internationalization efforts, together with the Unicode Consortium and the IETF, help people all around the world to exchange information in their own languages. Though the Web may have started off dominated by English with an ASCII character set, it now allows people to express themselves in at least 240 languages using 50 character formats.

Beyond making packets flow
Some representatives of the traditional Internet community urged the United Nations to take an engineer's view of at least the lower transport layers of the Internet: "If it ain't broken, don't fix it." But it seems unlikely that even the basic infrastructure of the Internet, that part managed by the IETF, is immune from the need to respond to social needs.

For example, today companies that build the Internet's hardware and software are developing technology to facilitate government interception of Internet traffic. What can we do to ensure these technologies respect basic privacy rights and security needs if they are not developed in the light of day, the way that all basic Internet technology has grown? Before governments force hardware engineers to build this functionality into products, we should make sure these issues are addressed.

This is no longer a job for engineers alone and no longer simply a question of making the packets flow to their appointed destinations. Our basic human rights and basic economic needs are determined by the current technical infrastructure.

We've got to be sure that their design meets the test of both technical merit and social soundness. As Annan said, "In managing, promoting and protecting (the Internet's) presence in our lives, we need to be no less creative than those who invented it. Clearly, there is a need for governance, but that does not necessarily mean that it has to be done in the traditional way, for something that is so very different." Our challenge is to retain the flexibility to introduce new, innovative technologies, and on the other hand, to be sure that we meet basic human needs in the process.