The Business of Internet Governance

After concluding my third day at the Telecommunication Policy Research Conference on communication, information, and Internet policy, I’m left with one burning question:  

if not bureaucrats, then who exactly should be writing the standards and policies of the Internet?

 In each session I attended, there were many strong and diverse opinions about the lack of success in conceptualizing, defining, and regulating aspects of the Internet. However, there was no strong consensus about how the Internet should actually be governed, or if it should be governed at all!

In my second session of conference day one, an impassioned comment from the crowd about policy-makers’ damaging role in Internet governance, fueled by their inability to understand the technical infrastructure, sparked a heated discussion. A high-ranking government official--who stated that his opinions were of his own accord and not on behalf of the U.S. Government-- blatantly said that engineers should be writing policies concerning the Internet not lawyers. This statement took me by surprise, not only because bureaucrats don’t usually admit fallibility, but because this misses the crucial point of the entire governance debate--who actually has the power to govern the Internet?

I can tell you with certainty, it’s not an amorphous group of engineers.

 Engineers, such as computer scientists, may have a more intimate understanding of the mathematical aspects of Internet technology. However, they may lack knowledge concerning societal impacts and variables such as socioeconomic attributes, infrastructure, individual use and adoption, or community impact, all details not included in their codes and algorithms. Nevertheless, these engineers are employed by monopolistic corporations like Google, monolithic governments, and international institutions like the IETF. These are the entities with the real power in the Internet governance game.

It is like Mason Craig, a Principal Technical Architect at AT&T said,  “Internet governance is going to mirror the way the non-Internet world works.   It is the businesses, governments, and militaries that rule the non-internet world, human rights are there, people who talk freedom are there, but those conversations don’t dominate. Businesses, governments, and militaries dominate, mainly because there’s nothing to stop them; 1: money talks, and 2: governments and militaries have the power to take control.”
 At first Craig’s poignant remarks frightened me, I thought they diminished the power of the Internet--a medium for the people--but after careful consideration I realized he was right! “The concept of the Internet being a free medium is a false concept, it’s not really free, and it’s going to get less free, it’s becoming more business and politically managed--and that’s why you’ve got the lawyers all over it”. Craig unveiled a key point, which is often overlooked in the Internet governance debate; like in our own complex bureaucratic world, the control comes from above, and the Internet unfortunately exists as a microcosm of our world--heavily micro-managed and regulated by not only capital and power, but the entities that hold both these resources in spades.

 So, it’s safe to say engineers are involved in the process, and are in fact key players in shaping the Internet, but hoping for the disappearance of lawyers? Not a chance, “whenever there’s business, there’s lawyers, you’ll never get the lawyers out of the equation”.

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