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What is Internet Governance and Why Does it Matter?

by Michael Nelson.

In November, CloudFlare participated in the tenth annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in João Pessoa, Brazil. Since it was launched at the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, the IGF has provided valuable opportunities for thousands of representatives of non-profit groups, businesses, governments, and others to debate decisions that will affect the future of the Internet. While the Forum does not negotiate any treaties or other agreements, what participants learn there can influence corporate strategies, standards proposals, and national government policies. Even more importantly, discussions in the hallways (or in the bar or on the beach) can lead to new projects, new thinking, and new collaborations.

The range of issues and the diversity of speakers on panels and at the podium was even greater this year than at previous IGFs. Issues ranged from the need for strong encryption to whether net neutrality regulations are needed—from countering the abuse of women online to how to foster deployment of IPv6 and Internet Exchange Points. You can watch all 167 IGF sessions, which were webcast and archived. I represent CloudFlare as a member of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), which organizes the IGF program. Together with the other MAG members, I would welcome suggestions for making the program of future IGFs even stronger.

Behind all the detailed technical and policy discussions there was a major “mega-debate” going on—a clash of two mindsets. This debate was just beneath the surface in almost every panel, whether it was on human rights, cybersecurity, or zero rating (which enables poor Internet users to get access to a limited set of Internet services). Think of it as a clash between the “foresters” and the “gardeners.” Gardeners like to have a very orderly garden where they decide which plants go where; they remove anything they feel doesn’t belong. In contrast, a forester’s primary goal is to allow a healthy and resilient ecosystem to develop. They don’t pick or limit what species of trees, plants, and animals grow. In fact, they abhor monocultures where only a few species dominate.

There are gardeners in governments but also in business and the nonprofit sector. They assume they should choose the best technologies, the best business models, and the best policies rather than leaving that to the market—and the billions of people who use the Internet. The “foresters” advocate for “permission-less innovation” but they cannot know for certain what great things their free-market approach could enable. So the “gardeners” have an advantage. They can point to a lot of problems (and “weeds”) that exist today—ranging from the lack of privacy online to hate speech to the Digital Divide—which they feel demand government action. And that is why some of them are pushing for IGF to draft specific policy recommendations rather than focusing on the multi-stakeholder discussions that have defined the IGF so far.

Next month, at discussions in New York City, the governments of the United Nations will decide whether to renew the mandate of the IGF for another five or ten years—and, more importantly, whether it will change into a place where governments define the agenda or whether the IGF will continue to be one of the few places where all the players in the Internet ecosystem—the techies, the lawyers, the business leaders, the politicians, the advocates, the students—everyone—can meet on equal footing to debate and to learn from each other.

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