Who owns the Internet?

The simple answer to that question is nobody; and everybody. If you pay for an Internet connection you can consider yourself a shareholder, albeit a silent one, so shouldn’t you be a little more concerned about how it develops and the way it’s run?

This year there has been a lot of talk about social media and the part it played in the ‘Arab Spring‘. Western cultures applauded the technology as a tool of revolution, lauding its freedom and openness as a fundamental human right. But when that infrastructure was used to incite and co-ordinate mindless violence and looting in the UK riots, those same voices were heard whispering about shutting down networks to stem the free flow of information that could be used for spurious means.

But one man’s riot is another man’s revolution, right? I can imagine the questions raised in Hosni Mubarak’s private chambers on the eve of the Tahrir Square protests were not dissimilar in essence to those echoing around musty chambers of the Houses of Parliament in August of this year; “Can we stop the people talking?”

But given that the Internet is a global nervous system of gateways and networks supported and operated by thousands upon thousands of separate entities across every nation on the planet, who has the right to make those decisions and by what measure does revolution become a riot?

Enter the IGF

It is monumental questions like these that are at the heart of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which held its sixth annual meeting at the UN offices in Nairobi last week. But what exactly is the Internet Governance Forum? If you Google the term you’ll find surprisingly little readable information. The organisation’s own website is so shrouded in tediously cautious politi-speak that only the most hardy researchers will ever truly understand its manifesto.

Simply put, it is an annual event run by the United Nations, where anyone who has a vested interest in the running of the Internet can come together and talk openly about their position & concerns. And it is just an event and not a UN Agency, as Alun Michael, former UK minister, and now Chair of an all-party group bringing together parliamentarians, business leaders and people from civil society with an interest in Internet governance, was keen to stress:

Alun Michael: “It’s not good enough for us to do things the way we’ve done in the past by the United Nations setting up an agency to run the Internet, a sort of top-down bureaucratic approach. It’s not enough to say that there ought to be treaties and legislation, because it’s far too complex and it’s changing too quickly.”

The IGF was formed following the 2005 World Summit on Information Technology, to bridge the gap between the conflicting demands of the Internet community, who defended a bottom-up, collaborative approach where many organisations work together and no-one is in charge, and the traditional intergovernmental organisation model, which many of the world’s leaders were pushing for.

Markus Kummer is now VP for public policy at The Internet Society (ISOC), but he was also one of the people responsible for setting up the IGF. When I spoke to him, he had an interesting point to make regarding the nature of the event, and whether a so-called ‘talking shop’ can really have any impact:

Markus Kummer: “Many say it’s a weakness of the IGF that it does not have any decisions or outcomes. However, others argue that is precisely its strength because there is no pressure to negotiate anything. It allows participants to discuss freely; to voice their opinions; to think aloud and think out of the box.

“You don’t do that when you’re in a negotiating setting, when you have to be very careful because you don’t want what you say today being held against you tomorrow when it comes to agreeing on a text.”

The event itself is much like any other international conference of its ilk: a series of workshops, sessions and best-practise forums designed to get the right people sitting down together in a room and talking. The sessions all sported tediously academic titles, like ‘Blocking Content: issues, principles and paths forward’, but the discussions were anything but tedious. Put a mix of politicians, civil servants, corporations and pressure groups in a room together, with a microphone on every desk, and throw them a big juicy bone of a question like: ‘Is freedom of speech on the Internet a human right?’ and just watch the fireworks fly.

The workshop that I had flown out to Nairobi to moderate was all about how social media is changing the way we consume news. On the panel were Wael Khalil, a software engineer and political activist in Egypt; Sarah El Sirgany, Deputy Editor of Daily News Egypt; a multimedia journalism student from the UK, Lewis Fry and Ed Vaizey, UK Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Minister.

For Vaizey, who seemed relaxed and unguarded in the informal setting, it was a chance to hear opinions from people involved in media, education, industry and even representatives from charities like Childnet International, which sent a delegation of young people from the UK who impressed the hell out of everyone they met.

Ed Vaizey: “It crystallised for me the essential dilemma when you talk about social media and the Internet across a whole range of issues; which is about self-regulation by big sites like Facebook and Google, against government regulation. I naturally favour self-regulation, but I think even Facebook, Google and others want government to set the parameters, which have to be wide.”

This year’s event closed on Friday 30th September with secretariat officials describing it as the “biggest and liveliest since the institution’s inception.” More than 2000 delegates came to the United Nations offices in Nairobi, including representatives from 125 Governments. The sessions were also streamed live online, allowing Internet users from countries as far-flung as Brazil, Burundi, New Zealand, Rwanda and the United States to pose questions to the panels.

For Lord Richard Allan, Facebook’s European head of privacy, the discussions must have been closer to home this year than in any other year:

Lord Richard Allan: “Most of the infrastructure of the Internet is owned by the private sector and run by the private sector, hopefully for the public good. So for us to be here and understand the concerns that people have and to be able to talk about how we’re responding to those, I think is essential.”

Predictably, a lot of the hot topics of conversation were around access & diversity, privacy, cybercrime & protecting the vulnerable – but as this is supposed to be a forum discussing what really matters on the Internet today, one would expect the highlights to be somewhat predictable. For Lynn St. Amour, President of The Internet Society, it was events during the Arab spring that were the star of the show:

Lynn St. Amour: “Certainly the so-called Arab spring has driven a number of actions by governments across the world and they are taking a much deeper look at the Internet and what that means to their society. So we’re particularly interested in ensuring that people preserve the open nature of the Internet. That’s what gave us this tremendous value and tremendous benefit and we would like to ensure that that was there for generations to come.”

With many governments around the world now stepping up the pressure to bring control of the Internet into an intergovernmental mechanism, these conversations could be more important than ever. It was one of the major talking points in the high level ministerial meeting that happened just before the opening ceremony of the IGF, as Lesley Cowley, CEO of .uk domain register, Nominet, explained:

Lesley Cowley: “Very much from the UK we’re supporting a multi-stakeholder discussion; and that means you, me, everyone involved in the Internet having a voice at the table. I would contrast that with other countries who very much want some kind of top-down intergovernmental approach. And really for me that set the scene for this week.”

Pretty much everything in modern life is touched by the Internet. Even if you don’t spend much time online yourself, the groceries you buy, the resources you consume to run your home are all delivered by processes that have the Internet at their heart, so it’s important to everybody.

If we think of the Internet as a nervous system, the IGF is its consultant physician: a diagnostic tool used to help figure out what’s going wrong and how it might be fixed. You can be a part of that conversation next year, participating online with your questions posed to some of the most influential people in the field.

So isn’t it about time we took more of an interest in how the Internet is run? I think future generations might thank us for it.