April 25, 2014

A panel of technology experts discussed regulation and supervision of the Internet at the SIPA Dean’s Seminar on Internet governance on April 14. Panelists addressed the current global debate over which local and international bodies should set guidelines for Internet use, especially in light of the United States’ recent decision to devolve its control.

“There is no area where the stakes are higher, no area more interesting than Internet governance,” said David Gross, a partner at the law firm Wiley Rein who has previously served as the coordinator for international communications and information policy in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Gross said that although it was easy to agree on the economic, cultural and political importance of the Internet, it was difficult to agree on countries’ responsibilities regarding Internet freedom and security within and between borders. This was a complicated debate that incorporated technical aspects of the Internet, much of which are currently controlled by the United States.

Panelists said there had been more or less tacit acceptance of U.S. governance over the Internet in the past. The U.S. government had played a major role in the Internet’s birth, after all, and had been a guardian of its openness and freedom.

But American oversight is increasingly being challenged by other countries, especially in the post-Snowden world.

Gordon Goldstein, managing director and head of external affairs for the technology investment firm Silver Lake Group, noted the significance of the Snowden leaks as a seed for growing mistrust of the United States, including its legal authority over ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN coordinates the Internet’s global domain name system, which is a key component that connects us to Web servers when we type in a Web address in our Internet browser.

Contention over who should have oversight over which areas of the Internet drums up geopolitical tensions because every aspect of society is dependent on internet infrastructure, said Laura DeNardis, a professor and associate dean in the School of Communication at American University. It affects our civil liberties, national security, and global innovation.

Rising international pressure and the United States’ weakened position in Internet governance have led to its decision last month to soon give up its oversight of ICANN and its centralized control of the Internet.

“We are now in no-man’s land,” said Goldstein, explaining that the U.S. devolvement of authority left the governance structure of the Internet to be redrawn, with the terms and conditions of the transition to global governance yet undefined and up for debate.

DeNardis said the future technical architecture of the Internet would probably reflect an arrangement of power among countries and international bodies. “Internet infrastructure is a proxy for content control,” she said, and this would affect the management of intellectual property, political dissent and geopolitical struggles, among other things.

Eli Noam, a professor at Columbia Business School and director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, argued that we should embrace the emergence of diversity in Internet governance. Having multiple layers and entities rather than a single system of governance could create space for collaboration and a dynamism that could have benefits, he said.

While it remained unclear how some countries would behave with the ability exercise control over Internet use, the panelists underlined that this will be an interesting space to watch in the next few years as the United States relinquishes its authority.

— Doyeun Kim MIA ’14

Photo (L-R): Gordon Goldstein, Dean Merit E. Janow, David Gross, Laura DeNardis, Eli Noam.