Documentary coverage of IGF-USA by the Imagining the Internet Center

IGF-USA Scenario Discussion: Panelists, participants discuss future that puts Internet governance in hands of governments worldwide

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Facilitators Steve DelBianco, Walda Rosemann and Janice LeChance lead a discussion on a possible global government for the Internet.

Brief description:

IGF participants broke into three different rooms to discuss three different, possible potential-future scenarios for the Internet in 2020. In this session, the description given to the discussants was: Most of us assume that the ICT industry, media companies and NGOs will continue to be the leading players on the Internet stage, with governments playing just a supporting role. This scenario describes an alternate future, where citizens and industry worldwide demand that their governments take center stage to clean up an Internet that has become infected with dangerous content and criminal conduct.

Details of the session:

Panelists and gathered participants in a scenario session at IGF-USA 2010 in Washington, D.C., expressed discouragement about an Internet future that will quickly witness larger international governmental control that would ultimately remove power from the ICT industry, media companies and NGOs, who now continue to be the main controllers of the Internet.

“A scenario is not a prediction,” said panel moderator Steve DelBianco, the executive director of NetChoice Coalition. “It’s designed to be provocative, but plausible. It’s designed to challenge your assumptions.”

Some members of the audience were skeptical that the scenario, as a whole, is plausible, but all agreed that if it became reality, it would be a frightening prospect. (Read the full description of the scenario here: http://api.ning.com/files/KeHnmv3O-PHbKeh0tKl8RaAjWl7S9siFVN8YEM6lN0ImimLqwuq6B2UlGNDtHBKp7MwNPjexPsur3DKlypEhgQ__/GlobalGovernmentfortheInternet.pdf)

DelBianco presented three converging forces that serve as drivers for the scenario:

  • Consumers lose trust in online content and e-commerce.
  • Businesses can no longer tolerate losses from fraud and lawsuits.
  • Governments have successfully used electronic monitoring to thwart terrorist attacks.

As a result of those three forces, the scenario proposed the following about the Internet in 2020:

  • Governments cooperate to oversee online content and e-commerce to a greater degree than ever before
  • Government and businesses require biometric ID for online users
  • Online publishers are now liable for user-generated content and conduct
  • You need an “Online License” to use the Internet.

Janice Lachance, the chief executive officer of the Special Libraries Association and an invited panelist for the session, said she is anxious about the scenario’s potential to stem the openness of the Internet.

“I think this scenario gives us all a lot to think about,” Lachance said. “As someone who has an organization that’s concerned with the free flow of information and the access to information, I think that excessive government involvement raises red flags for us. It probably isn’t all bad, but if it’s certainly getting to the point that’s described here, I fear we will have a lot of consequences if you’re trying to do business.”

Walda Roseman, the founder of CompassRose International, said she thinks there’s a “rolling thunder” toward more governmental control because of the increasing security threats facing online users. A member of the audience agreed, saying the scenario is not so unlikely because it’s happening at lower levels already.

“All of these situations are going on, just not at a tipping point,” said the participant. “I don’t think this is necessarily avoidable. I think the focus should be on how to facilitate solutions, rather than to prevent something that currently exists.”

One possible solution, according to Roseman, is to rely on more and better intergovernmental cooperation. She said it’s necessary for countries to find ways to hold more cohesive and inclusive dialogues.

“Can we shape conclusions as a world as opposed to quickly avoid them?” Roseman said. “We’re seeing a lot of collaboration among governments, and the collaboration is not yet 100 percent on the cybersecurity issues, but it’s a different alliance there. We’re wanting intergovernmental organizations to make the policy decisions and a whole lot more than the policy decisions.”

Several audience members said they don’t foresee national governments getting together on the issue of Internet governance in the near future when they can’t even come to concrete conclusions on financial regulation or climate change, for example.

So if “some bizarre world government” isn’t created to handle the issue, as one participant said, then it will fall, most likely, to the local governmental level or the United Nations. Even then, there was some articulated concern that a governmental body simply can’t respond and react in a timely fashion to any problems that may arise.

“I’m concerned about notion of institutional competence,” said an audience member. “Does the government have the competence to run the Internet? I don’t think they have the expertise or the quickness to react.”

Markus Kummer, executive coordinator of the Internet Governance Forum, said that government shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame for ineffective policies.

“We need to avoid having a black-and-white picture of all government is bad and all the other institutions are good,” Kummer said. “I think it’s a little more complex than that. How do we find a fruitful cooperation among all the actors?”

No matter who might claim Internet governance, panelists and participants expressed concerns about the future of anonymity, security, openness and freedom of information on the Internet. They said it’s up to the people who work together through IGF to continue having conversations that could lead to a positive future. “Citizens and business have lost patience, and they need solutions,” DelBianco said. “If we don’t deliver, entities that discuss may be seen as not fast enough to solve problems. We need to show progress. Lots of organizations will have to start delivering results so we don’t get the result we don’t want. We need to avoid having the Exxon Valdez of Internet security.”

Two U.S. government employees who were part of the audience for the scenario said the United States needs to look carefully and closely at how it views and values the Internet to figure out what it truly wants and needs. “This is moving so much faster than we expected,” said a U.S. State Department participant. “Are we going to lose by maybe trying to be idealistic and assuming that everyone else is going to take on our same model? Maybe we need to get together as U.S. citizens and ask, ‘What do we absolutely want for our Internet, what do we want as a country?’ and get really clear on that so that when we start making foreign policy decisions we’re not compromising our values.”

-Colin Donohue, http://www.imaginingtheinternet.org

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