Internet Governance (Or Lack Thereof)

Several weeks ago we were reading “Where wizards stay up late: the origins of the Internet”. One of the interesting tidbits was that ARPA offered that AT&T could become a regulated monopoly on the Internet and AT&T said no because the Internet would never work. At the time, we simply held it up like “Haha boy were they wrong.” This week, though, we learned that the entire traditional infrastructure ignored it. IBM, AT&T, the FCC, the ITU, telecommunications companies and regulators alike thought it wouldn’t fly. There were no guarantees, no security, no carrier model. But, like the bumblebee, fly it did. With everyone ignoring it, it grew up largely unregulated.

This week we asked the question, “Who governs the Internet?” As our guest speaker, Scott Bradner, half-joked at the beginning of class: “no one”. I say joke because by this point regulators have seen the bumblebee fly and there are certainly national attempts at Internet regulation. China springs to mind, with their Great Firewall and their censoring of content that might “confuse” the populace. Other countries have some amount of internal regulation But I say half-joke because outside of China, there are no country borders on the Internet, and no good way of settling jurisdiction. And this can create conflict.

Take, for example, the EU’s right to be forgotten. For background, the right to be forgotten allows a citizen in an EU to approach a company with a search engine, like Google, and demand they take down information that is true but no longer relevant (for some definition of relevant). For example, if I’m 70 years old and un upright citizen and don’t want my grandkids seeing that I was arrested at 14 for shoplifting, I can tell Google to take down any search results pointing to that information and they have to do it. Regardless of whether this law is good or not, it begs the question “What happens if someone outside the EU makes the same search?” Whose law takes control? The EU’s law or the other country’s law? Unfortunately, there aren’t really any rules for this because the Internet grew up as an unregulated upstart, ignored by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which regulates traditional international telecommunication. This has caused a not insignificant amount of drama. The situation as it stands is that Google will appropriately filter searches made within the EU, and will not for searches outside the EU (this raises questions of what if EU citizens are outside the EU, or foreigners within the EU, but at first approximation seems a good middle ground).

Though the Google situation seems like it’s in a stable place, but jurisdictional problems over the Internet are accelerating, not slowing. And this implies that there is a place for Internet governance. But what form should it take? There could be an international body that governs interactions and Internet relations between countries. This seems difficult, if for no other reason than the scope of the Internet and all the different possibilities for growth and change making it difficult for such a body to keep up. Or there could be simple ruling that no country can make rules that interfere with the internal workings of another country. This seems more reasonable, and may be the way forward if the world is looking to rain in the chaos that is the Internet. Or maybe, like Snowden and Assange, the world will break down such structure. Who knows?

1 Comment »

  1. Jim Waldo

    November 13, 2016 @ 5:44 pm


    There are actually different levels of governance in the Internet. The IETF governs the lowest-level technical protocols, and IANA governs the address and name allocations. I think the real question is who governs the higher levels (like content and policy), and there things are getting confused. Countries want to govern what goes on inside their borders, but what influence they have outside their borders is an interesting question.

    I think the “Right to be Forgotten” is going to be an interesting test case, for some time to come…

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