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The Real Question of Internet Governance

The latter half of 2012 is one of the heaviest periods of Internet governance activity ever, with three critical events that could change the course of the next decade.  So it’s important to take a step back from the catchall phrase “Internet governance,” and ask what it even means… and why it really matters.

It started earlier this month in Toronto with the 45th meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and continues through the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Baku, Azerbaijan in November.   (NetChoice was a prominent actor at the ICANN meetings and will attend the IGF next week, too.)  Then, December brings us the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai.   Taken together, these events present a series of critical decision points for the Internet’s future.

At a recent preparatory meeting for the IGF in Washington, one speaker said these events attempt to answer the question, “Who should govern the Internet?”

But I countered by saying the real question is, “When people use the Internet, how are their activities best governed?”

When people use the Internet, how are their activities best governed?”

I asked this because it’s critical for people to remember that very few, if any, of the online activities swept in under the rubric of Internet governance are unique to the Internet.

The activities we do online are often good: expressing ourselves, rallying support for causes, communicating with our friend and families.  And there are bad activities, too: stealing, fraud, bullying and harassing, fomenting hatred and discrimination.

All these activities have been around long before the Internet, and all continue to be caused by people in the physical world.   As a result,  questions of how to “govern” or “regulate” those activities has been exhaustively discussed, debated and coded into law.

So what makes the Internet different? Clearly there are differences or I wouldn’t need to spend much of this year in airports and conference hotels.   But what are the distinctions that make Internet governance different from regular governance of the very same activities?

I would argue that it comes down to three big differences about the Internet: time, distance, and identity.

How the Internet compresses time is obvious to anyone who lived before its adoption. The term “Internet time” was coined to reflect the breakneck pace at which change, both good and bad, appears and propagates on the Internet. On the good side, the Internet dramatically speeds the commerce, communication and organization, in a manner that extends far beyond simple convenience. The dark side of “Internet time” is that criminals, pirates and fraudsters can do much more damage, in a much shorter amount of time, than was possible in the physical world.

The Internet has also warped our concept of distance. We travel around the world and back in a matter of keystrokes, along with our wallets and personal information. Distance also means that a criminal in Russia may as well be standing directly behind me on a crowded bus, given the ease with which he can take my property and identity from afar.

The famous New Yorker cartoon sums up the identity issue perfectly: “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” — or  a trusted vendor, a crook or anyone else for that matter. The message to users whether online or offline is still,  caveat emptor.

Still, the discussion of these activities in the online world is what animates the global conversation about Internet Governance at IGF, at the United Nation’s WCIT, and to a lesser extent, at ICANN. The obfuscation of time, distance, and identity have raised the stakes, and brought a lot of new stakeholders into the debate. How we address these core Internet differentiators will determine how the Internet evolves, and how those activities are restricted or encouraged.

So while we all eagerly await the answer of “who” shall regulate the Internet, we may be missing critical work on questions of “how” the activities of real people are regulated, whether offline or online.  And from what I can see, that is the more important question before us.