Internet governance: mapping the battleground

Internet Local government Information technology

This report provides an outline of major upcoming battles in the debate about how the internet is governed, and aims to feed into existing civil society efforts to engage in this debate. The forums, bodies and conferences are prioritised and grouped depending on their decision-making clout and their likelihood of having an impact on the overall debate outcomes. Priority is given to forums that explicitly deal with internet governance, its mechanisms, processes, and actors. These forums are linked to individual conferences and a brief analysis of the forum type, relevance, and avenue for civil society participation. Forums that address internet governance less explicitly are also outlined. Their impact on internet governance is likely to be more indirect, but no less relevant. They can also be important spaces to develop a positive, proactive agenda across different stakeholder groups.

As the ten-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) approaches, we find ourselves at a tipping point in the debate on the appropriate governance model for the internet. Civil society will have a crucial role in advocating for an internet governance regime that protects and expands the potential of the internet as a conduit for human rights and freedom of expression.

Initially, governance of the internet was synonymous with governing the internet’s functional resources. It was marked by an absence of an overarching central authority and relied on decentralised and multi-stakeholder decision-making processes with input from civil society, academics, engineers, and the private sector. During this early period, the internet was of little interest to governments and was largely absent from traditional international governance forums. However, due to the growing socio-political implications of the medium, the internet is now emerging as a stand-alone issue on national and international public policy agendas. As governments try to exert their influence over the field, debates on internet-related issues emerge in inter- governmental forums alongside multi-stakeholder spaces that have developed as part of technical governance of the internet.

Consequently, policies that have an impact on the internet’s development are discussed across a growing number of forums that cut across policy areas such as security, development, and free expression. While the current model has its downsides, many see this emergence of governmental interest in the internet as a worrying trend that will have a detrimental impact on the internet’s potential to support innovation – a potential which is said to rely on the decentralised, multi-stake holder and open model of governance.

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