Written by Stelios Kavvadias
In 2017 the number of Internet users surpassed 4 billion, as a result, among others, of the immense yearly improvements of digital infrastructure worldwide (Mcdonald, 2018). This means that by June 2017, 51% of the world’s population was able to browse through the vast amount of information that can be found online (Wikipedia, 2018). Nowadays, we use the Internet to educate ourselves, work, shop, communicate, participate in political life, spend our free time and in dozens of other ways. In Europe, penetration of the Internet in the population is as high as 85,2%. Europeans consist of 17% of the Internet’s users, while they represent only the 10,8% of the global population (Internet World Stats, 2018). The 6 hours spent online by Europeans each day on average indicates that the Internet possesses an increasingly important role in our everyday lives (Mcdonald,2018).
There is no doubt that the proliferation of the Internet has changed and is still altering the way that the world functions. However, have we, the users, ever wondered who pulls the strings of this “gigantic entity”? Put differently, who sets the course of the Internet, which has become a mainstay of common human life alongside activities such as jogging and sleeping? Sadly for those attracted by conspiracy theories, the truth is far away from a secretive, all-powerful organization that controls the Internet for its malevolent purposes.
Instead, the answer lies in the context of Internet Governance (IG). To be more specific, by examining the field of Internet Governance, we can extract responses to the questions of who controls the digital world and how developments in it are determined. During the 2005 ‘World Summit on the Information Society’, Internet Governance was defined as “the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programs that shape the evolution and use of the internet” (Masters, 2014). By looking at this definition in depth, it is evident that Internet Governance follows a multistakeholder model. Governments, Academia, private companies, the technical community (e.g. the ones that create and update the technical standards of the Internet) and NGOs all have a say in the discussion of the future of Internet. This is a quite rare form of governance that does not always function like a well-synchronized orchestra, but ensures that regardless of someone’s background sector, their voice can be heard.. However, in practice, each stakeholder does not carry the same weight, meaning that some of them possess greater transformative power which can be used to support developments in their favour.
In recent years, NATO recognized the digital space as the fourth operational domain of war (alongside sea, land and air), Estonia created the first digital embassy and Denmark appointed its first digital ambassador. In other words, there is a growing tendency to render digital policy an inextricable part of international diplomacy. At the beginning of the new millennium, as the Internet became increasingly important in the fields of economy and politics, the need for a common context to discuss future developments in the digital space arose. The United Nations (UN) decided to organize the ‘World Summit on the Information Society,’ a two-faced gathering (Geneva 2003, Tunis 2005) that mainly addressed the issue of the digital divide between wealthy and developing countries. The Summit has since taken place yearly and was last held in Geneva in March 2018.
Another important conference that was created in order to address topics related to cyberspace was the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The annual Forum was first held in Athens in 2006 and has since taken place in Brazil, Egypt, Azerbaijan and India, among others. What makes this Forum unique is its multi-stakeholder approach, which it has upheld from the very beginning. While it is heavily supported by the United Nations, all kinds of stakeholders contribute to its work. The success of the Forum has sparked several national and regional initiatives that aim to bring the opinion of all local stakeholders to the main annual event. Countries from all over the globe have kickstarted nationwide dialogues regarding Internet Governance, with Germany and the Netherlands being particularly active, since they have also founded Youth IGF chapters. Furthermore, two quite significant regional cooperation movements have emerged in the European continent, the South Eastern European Dialogue on Internet Governance (SEEDIG) and the European Dialog on Internet Governance (EuroDIG). Year after year, more countries and their respective stakeholders become active in the field, which is a very promising message for the future of the Internet, furthering the amount of dialogue, ideas and opinions. However, the desire of some countries to exclude stakeholders other than governments in the discussion of the future of Internet undermines the very existence and outcomes of the IGF.
The topics that are discussed in Internet Governance-related conferences are altered every year due to the rapid developments of digital technology. However, according to Diplo foundation, these topics can be categorized in the following seven baskets: Infrastructure, Security, Legal, Economy, Development, Sociocultural and Human Rights (Kurbalija, 2016). The Infrastructure basket includes topics linked to physical Internet infrastructure (cables, servers, switches etc), standards (e.g. network or web), Internet of Things (IoT) and Net Neutrality. The Security basket encapsulates subjects like cyberconflict and warfare, cyber-terrorism, online child safety and protection of critical infrastructure from cyber-threats. Furthermore, protection of intellectual and property rights, laws regarding privacy and data protection (e.g. GDPR), e-working rights and jurisdiction issues also belong to the Legal Basket. In the Economy basket, topics that stand out are virtual currencies, digital trade, as well as Internet data (e.g. data analysis for targeted online marketing) and access economy (e.g. pricing for broadband connections). In addition, the Development basket covers mainly the problem of Digital divide, while the Sociocultural basket contains themes such as online education, cultural diversity and multilingualism. Finally, the Human Rights basket encompasses developments in the protection of the online rights, such as freedom of expression and the rights to seek, receive, and impart information, while at the same time, individual privacy is safeguarded.
As described above, there is a plethora of topics that are addressed in the context of Internet Governance. Of course, there are several subtopics that are missing due to the fact that as the Internet expands into so many fields of our everyday life, it is hard to keep track of all new additions. However, the range of topics ensures that not only people with a strong background in Information Technology can take part in the discussion. In fact, interdisciplinary cooperation is strongly encouraged under the common goal of improving the digital world for future generations.
Furthermore, today’s youth will be the ones to reap the benefits of a connected world through the Internet compared to other generations. Therefore, the participation of youth in discussions about the future developments of the Internet is necessary. Not only should young people have “a seat at the table”, but a meaningful role and contribution to the shaping of the super-construction that connects the whole planet. Serving the above goal, the “Youth Coalition on Internet Governance”, an open group for organizations and individuals, has gathered in its website all the related conferences and initiatives that exist worldwide. For every voice that joins the field of IG through the several existing structures and opportunities, the Internet becomes more inclusive and improves the chances of maintaining its open nature. Provided that the majority of the world’s population nowadays has access to the Internet, we, as Internet users, should monitor the changes in the field and aim to become actors in the positive evolution of the Internet. Regardless study background or geographical limitations, one can be involved and express his or her concerns, ideas and needs that can revolutionize the Internet’s landscape. The pluralism of opinions, whether they express personal views or the stance of a stakeholder enriches the whole process and leads to a fruitful and constructive discourse. Finally, we should all “remain committed to making sure the web is a free, open, creative space — for everyone” that “reflects our hopes and fulfil our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions” (Berners-Lee, 2018).
Stelios is a young IT professional who is currently based in Athens. He possesses a BSc in Digital Systems from the University of Piraeus. In the past, he had the opportunity to study as an Erasmus student at the University of Stockholm in the Department of Computer and Systems Sciences. Stelios has been chosen as a “Telemachus Mentee” from the Global Thinkers Forum and he specializes in Digital policy while also having a great interest for International Relations.
Mcdonald, N. (2018, January 30). Digital in 2018: World’s internet users pass the 4 billion mark. Retrieved from https://wearesocial.com/us/blog/2018/01/global-digital-report-2018
Wikipedia. (2018, May 01). Global Internet usage. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Internet_usage
Internet World Stats. (2018, May 07). The Internet Big Picture. Retrieved from https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm
Masters, J. (2014, April 23). What Is Internet Governance? Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-internet-governance
Kurbalija, J. (2016). An introduction to internet governance. Retrieved June 17, 2018, from https://issuu.com/diplo/docs/anintroductiontoig_7th_edition
Berners-Lee, T. (2018, March 12). The web is under threat. Join us and fight for it. Retrieved June 17, 2018, from https://webfoundation.org/2018/03/web-birthday-29/