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Internet Governance

An introduction to global Internet governance.

Internet Standards

Standards setting for the Internet needs to favour openness and consensus. The needs of developing countries, civil society and emerging entrepreneurs also need to be considered.

Setting technical standards requires the work of technical experts, but involves wider issues than just technical ones. Standards can relate to political and economic issues, and act as a means of protection, domination and exclusion.

Internet standards were initially set by small groups of people. When neither commerce nor governments paid too much attention to the governance of the Internet, standards setting took place within a culture that favoured openness and consensus. Nevertheless, standards reflected the dominance of Internet users and developers from North America and Europe, and for many years only Latin characters could be accommodated by Internet protocols.

The rapid expansion of the Internet has required the development of new standards. Increasingly, a view of the Internet as a lucrative e-Commerce market place is influencing standards setting. In the process the interests of large corporations and powerful governments are receiving far greater consideration than those of developing countries, civil society, and emerging small and medium e-enterprises.

Standards Bodies

There are three major Internet standards bodies:

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)

IETF website

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) set standards for the Internet.The IETF has an open e-mail membership structure, whereas the W3C is restricted to paying member organisations or invited experts.

The IETF sets the underlying technical standards for the Internet. It describes itself as a "loosely self-organised group of people who make technical and other contributions to the engineering and evolution of the Internet and its technologies". Membership of IETF working groups is open to anyone who chooses to participate via e-mail. These working groups develop technical specifications based on "rough consensus and working code". The Internet Society (ISOC) has played a prominent role in overseeing IETF activities, but with ISOC having lost much of its early strength, its ability to play this role in the future is uncertain.

In recent times the IETF has come under increasing pressure from commercial organisations complaining that its policy of reaching wide consensus makes it too slow, and from governments and law enforcement agencies wanting to impose legal obligations on it to incorporate such elements as wiretapping facilities and traceability of users into its standards.

World Wide Web Consortium

W3C website

W3C sets standards for the World Wide Web (accessibility, user interface, architecture, etc.). Its structure differs from the IETF in that participation is restricted to member organisations willing to pay annual membership fees or to "invited experts". The W3C has maintained relatively open standards, partly as a result of the powerful participation of one individual, Tim Berners-Lee, the "inventor" of the World Wide Web, who sees it as a place for open and free information exchange.

The sustainability of this "benevolent dictatorship" is questionable. There are great pressures on W3C to introduce ways of filtering out "harmful" content. Such mechanisms could potentially be used by governments to restrict content that criticises their policies. At the same time, commercial interests and law enforcement bodies are demanding standards that will enable collection of data on users, and make it possible for the publishers and users of content to be easily traced.

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers

ICANN website

ICANN is the international organisation responsible for the Internet Domain Name System.

As the Internet expanded, the need to review the process of managing Internet domain names, which have to be unique, was recognised by both users and domain name administrators. These administrators were often voluntary. ICANN was set up in 1998 as a US not-for-profit organisation to administer the Internet Domain Name System. It is intended to increase efficiency and coordination in the management of domain names, and the creation of new top-level domains to join the existing .com, .org, .ac, .edu, .net, etc.

But, attempting to increase efficiency without clear accountability has resulted in open controversy. Many have questioned ICANN's decision-making and governance processes. Some of the recent decisions made by ICANN in response to applications for new top-level domains (tld), such as .union, have proved very controversial. In fact, the process of applying for a new tld itself is suspect, requiring a non-refundable fee of US$ 50 000. Principles of information management receive little consideration, while the ability to pay for the application, travel to ICANN meetings, and prove convincing commercial interests in owning a tld are taken very seriously.

Information policy makers need to be aware of ICANN, and attempt to influence its decision making. ICANN has laid down guidelines for national country code top-level domain registries, and it has the semblance of being "international", but, unless its structure and governance are transformed, ICANN could undermine free and easy access to Internet domain names. The process of assigning domain names, and the control of those domains, need to be transparent and accessible. Administrators of a domain name can remove the name from the servers that administer names, and that can in effect make the content held under that name unreachable.

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