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January/February 1999
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Internet Governance: The Struggle over the Political Economy of Cyberspace
By Madanmohan Rao
madanr@planetasia.com

IFWP. IANA. IAHC. WWC. IETF. EFF. GILC. ISOC. And that's just the beginning. As the global Internet user population heads closer to the 150-million mark, an alphabet soup of organizations is being drawn into the struggle to define and shape the protocols, architecture, content, and transactional regulations of the Internet.

That struggle over political economy of the Internet may well be one of the most profound issues of the dawning information age, according to Internet professionals from the United States, Europe, and Asia who gathered recently in Boston for One World, One Net, a conference on Internet governance.

"We are now entering a strongly political phase in the evolution of the Internet as it becomes a globally distributed economy," said Internet veteran Einar Stefferud, president of Network Management Associates and founder of First Virtual.

"The challenge has now moved from interoperability to interworkability. While getting different computers to work together was the challenge in the early years of the Internet, the upcoming challenge is in getting differing governing bodies, public interest groups, and corporate lobbies to work together," he said.

Issues like allocation of Internet domain names and IP addresses are posing serious challenges to existing mechanisms. "For more than a year, the U.S. government has been shopping for a way to give away control of the Internet domain issue," according to Lawrence Lessig, cyberlaw professor at Harvard University. "But there seems to be a naive thinking that mere privatization of this issue will make all the problems go away. It is not enough for government to hand over the domain name issue to a nonprofit private corporation. Government should insist that this corporation live up to the values and traditions of the Internet community," Lessig said. "Values of due process, openness, and free speech are key. The government need not run things, but should ensure that the running goes by the proper principles." The challenge for the Internet community and policy makers is to preserve values of liberty without getting obsessive about formal legalisms.

The way Internet governance issues will play themselves out in countries around the world will depend on the political culture of that country--the degree of openness and cooperation that is possible between the government, private, and civil sectors, according to Steven Miller, author of Civilizing Cyberspace. Much of the success of the Internet economy depends on the confidentiality and privacy of transaction-related data. Governments in Japan, South Korea, and Australia are joining their counterparts in North America and Europe in formulating data privacy laws. But serious differences of opinion are arising between Europeans and Americans over issues of online and offline data privacy, according to Deborah Hurley, director of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project. The European Union's Data Protection Directive aims to give consumers control over their own personal data--which is collected and used for marketing purposes--but that may hamper U.S. firms' ability to exchange data with their overseas partners and subsidiaries. "It is important to see online privacy and security as social issues, not just individual values," Hurley said.

Other issues of concern revolve around universal access to the Net and around the nature of content published on the Net. "It is a good idea to have citizens set their own levels of content control, but the process of setting up such filters can be abused by authoritarian governments," said Mike Nelson, program director of Internet technology at IBM, who served previously at the White House and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. In addition to government agencies, the private sector can provide solutions to parental concerns over children's access to objectionable content on the Web. Many companies are producing Web content filters, and several ISPs in the United States also are specializing in child-friendly services.

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, senior vice president at MCI and widely regarded as the father of the Internet, said issues like universal access to the Internet are bringing about an alignment between public interest and corporate groups in increasing diffusion of the Internet. "Long-term funding from the U.S. government and taxpayers helped instill an atmosphere of freedom in the early years of the Internet, and [that atmosphere] is still present in the culture of sharing that is evident on the Net today," said Cerf. But the challenge is how to make such funding initiatives economically viable and sustainable in the long run.

Recent developments like the deal between telecommunications giant AT&T and cable TV company TCI may reveal tremendous potential for sectors like direct interactive marketing and entertainment via the Net, but the developments also raise serious concerns about protection of the public interest, according to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Washington, D.C., Center for Media Education. "Will the convergence between telecommunciations and cable TV lead to more one-way traffic or [to] two-way traffic?" he asked. "While the Net has helped news organizations provide new kinds of services round the clock, we are also seeing an increasing and disturbing blurring between news and advertising," Chester said.

The organizers of the conference--Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), at www.cpsr.org--are trying to increase awareness of these wider public interest issues, said Aki Namioka, president of CPSR. "We are pursuing initiatives like student chapters of CPSR, coalition building with other organizations involved in media issues, and extending outreach via international alliances," he said.

As the Internet marches into a crucial phase in its tumultuous history, it is becoming evident that Internet professionals around the world need to pay greater attention to the interplay between technological, social, economic, and policy issues pertaining to the Internet.


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