Monday, October 03, 2011

In praise of chaos

Governments’ attempts to control the internet should be resisted


FOR something so central to the modern world, the internet is shambolically governed. It is run by a hotch-potch of organisations with three- to five-letter acronyms. Many of their meetings, both online and offline, are open to the public. Some—like the Internet Governance Forum, which held its annual meeting in Nairobi this week—are just talking shops. Decision-making is slow and often unpredictable.

It is in short a bit chaotic. But sometimes chaos, even one that adherents like to claim somewhat disingenuously is a “multi-stakeholder” approach, is not disastrous: the internet mostly works. And the shambles is a lot better than the alternative—which nearly always in this case means governments bringing the internet under their control.

Supple yet strong
The internet’s openness fosters two of its great virtues. First, it has encouraged innovation. In rich countries the internet has generated as much as 10% of GDP growth over the past 15 years, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, a think-tank. Second, because nobody controls the internet, it has proved hard to censor. And despite (or perhaps because of) this lack of governance, the network has proved surprisingly resilient. More than two billion people are now connected to the internet. The many predictions of collapse have not yet proved correct.
Governments are uncomfortable with the current set-up. There is a growing sense—and not just among the usual authoritarian suspects—that the internet is too important, politically as well as economically, to continue to operate beyond the remit of governments (see article).
Some governments are pushing to be more than mere stakeholders and instead to have the final say in important matters. China and Russia want the United Nations General Assembly to adopt an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security”. India, Brazil and South Africa have called for a “new global body” to control the internet. Other countries want to give a UN agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a supervisory role. The upcoming renegotiation of the treaty that defines the ITU’s competences is regarded as an opportunity to push this agenda.
Even Western governments, which usually favour the multi-stakeholder system, would like to rein in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), whose board decides which top-level domains to add (such as .com or .biz). ICANN has just started the process to introduce a lot more high-level domains (expect to see .pepsi and .lawyer), which is why governments are increasingly nervous about the body’s sometimes opaque decision-making process—and why some would like to have a veto over controversial new domains (such as .jesus, .gay and .tibet).
Governments have a role to play—such as defending their citizens’ interests—but they should not be allowed the final say over such matters, for creeping state control would suffocate the internet. Imagine if the ITU, a classic example of a sluggish international bureaucracy with antiquated diplomatic rituals, or indeed any other inter-governmental organisation, had been put in charge of the nascent global network two decades ago. Would it have produced a world-changing fount of innovation? We think not.