You can’t fight these wars in a clean fashion. Stephen Walt

Who runs the Internet?

The Internet as we know it has come under threat. As governments and large corporations poise themselves to take control, the question is: What can we as individual users do?

When thinking of the future of democracy, we should not only focus on using the Internet as a means for greater participation, but also think of it as one of the greatest achievements of our society, one that must be kept free and open – an achievement we should safeguard with democratic processes.

To many of us – this author included – the Internet is this little blinking box that we get when we sign a contract with an Internet provider. Not so many years ago, it made funny sounds when connecting to the world. Nowadays it just blinks. To none of us ordinary users is it really conceivable what actually happens inside this blinking box and beyond, and how it enables us to connect to remote websites that contain nearly every bit of information we might want to access: from the timetable of the Bogota metropolitan transport system to cat videos.

We do not know how it works, but there is a vague feeling that there must be someone in charge of keeping it running. And this is both true and false: It is fatally false because the Internet has grown organically, decentrally, and clumsily. From a handful of geeks and academics at universities that started sending e-mails and creating the first websites to your dog’s travel blog: there was never a single central authority that coordinated the Internet. Up until today, the internet is a structure that consists of and is governed by a multitude of stakeholders – a large, open and free space that creates opportunities not only for thriving businesses, but also for political activists, social networks, arts and culture.

It will hardly be more democratic

Nevertheless, there are actors that have specific coordinating functions within the Internet. Perhaps the most important one is ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which allocates IP addresses and domain names (for example, theeuropean.de). It’s basically the Internet’s address book. The question of who controls this address book has already been one of the most heavily debated political questions on Internet governance for some time. But with the Snowden revelations, it’s appeared on the radar of global policymakers.

Why? Up to now, ICANN – although a non-profit organization – is acting on behalf of the U.S. Department of Commerce and therefore the U.S. Government: the same government that authorized the NSA to spy on more or less everyone who is connected to the Internet. Consequently (though not without irony), countries such as China and Russia, but also Brazil, India, South Africa and many developing countries are demanding more say in the governance of the Internet and ICANN. While the U.S. is arguing that ICANN is controlled by a multitude of stakeholders (composed of tech companies, providers, and NGOs), these countries would prefer to have governments ruling it, arguing (again, not without irony) that this would make it more democratic.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, which is supposed to be decided next year (the U.S. has promised to release control of the ICANN role of assigning names and numbers by September 2015), it will hardly be more democratic. Although the Internet affects the daily lives of billions of people around the globe, these people will not be able to effectively and directly shape the future of its governance.

Too complex and too global for most of us

If indeed the BRICS’s argument succeeds, and governments do gain more say in the Internet’s governance, democratic flaws similar to those of the United Nations will restrain citizen participation. There is no globally elected parliament, nor are there any global referendums or popular initiatives that would allow individual Internet users to shape the future of one of their most precious technologies. On the contrary: Internet governance will be more of a game for the big powers, threatening the free flow of information across borders. While some nation states will try to protect their industries, some will censor free speech, and some will intrude on their citizens’ privacy.

On the other hand, if the multi-stakeholder approach succeeds, the Internet’s governance will be in the hands of those who successfully organize: some NGOs, some civil rights organizations, some government representatives, but also big companies. It is highly doubtful whether ordinary Internet users around the world will be able, willing, and competent to organize themselves effectively for the purpose of Internet governance. The issues at stake in Internet governance are too complex and too global for most of us. Make no mistake: the multi-stakeholder solution will be more beneficial to the needs of most users, but it won’t be very democratic either.

In order to effectively gain some leverage in the discussion about the future of Internet governance, the participation of true global citizens would be needed. To achieve this, we need new approaches that allow inclusive democratic processes. But we’re only at the very beginning of thinking about such processes. One such process we should keep an eye on is Argentina’s Partido de la Red; another one, which ultimately failed but taught us valuable lessons, was Iceland’s crowdsourcing of a new constitution. Compared to the challenge of developing a global democratic process for Internet governance, these are baby steps, but we would be well advised to take them as we “stumble forward” on this path, as Bill Clinton put it.

Read Newest From Column Maximilian Stern: Internet Ergo Sum

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