Why One Open Internet Matters

If you want to build a website or start a new business online, should you seek permission from anyone? Absolutely not. The Internet is based on the fundamental principle of openness, constantly striving to connect people, make voices heard, innovate and encourage participation. 


From an engineering standpoint, the Internet’s infrastructure is based on an open architecture that enables interconnection between various types of networks. Essentially, the Internet is one large network made up of a series of smaller networks. Furthering this idea of openness, it is built on a set of open, non-proprietary protocols and standards that can freely be accessed and used by anyone. Those standards are developed through open processes and in forums such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), where anyone with the knowledge and expertise can contribute to the protocol development process.


Likewise, on the policy side, policies pertaining to the underlying system of unique identifiers, the names and the numbers that are essential for the operation of the Internet, are also developed in an open, and bottom-up manner at regional and global fora, such as the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This approach of policy development has evolved into what has come to be known as multistakeholder model of Internet governance, which not only tackles policy issues pertaining to the technical functions of the Internet, but handles a myriad of global Internet policy issues.


The openness of the Internet is also manifested in how it allows users to communicate and share information freely.


Lastly, an open Internet encourages individuals to innovate, start and grow businesses and offer services that extend beyond geographical boundaries in an unprecedented manner.


Permission-less innovation is what makes the Internet so different from any other kind of communication media. It would be no exaggeration to say that it is the essence of the Internet. Try and imagine what the Internet would look like if this core concept of openness were to be removed, or if these smaller networks splintered off  - a scenario we refer to as “fragmentation”. Online businesses created with the aim of being reached from anywhere in the world would only be able to reach a fraction of the Internet population. Such a fragmentation in the network would very much undermine the true value of the Internet – communication that transcends boundaries and borders. It is these values that have made the Internet such an incredible success for its users, whether they are individuals, businesses, civil society groups, etc.


Right before our eyes, the Internet is rapidly evolving, and so is its impact on every facet of our lives as individuals and societies alike. That means the rules and procedures that govern the Internet need to be agile enough to evolve and keep up with the dynamic nature of the Internet. And since the Internet, as we know it today, is the result of ongoing collaboration and contribution made by numerous people, organizations and groups, or “stakeholders” as we tend to call them in Internet governance context, its governance should also reflect the cooperation and participation of those who affect and are affected by it. This approach of multistakeholder governance is a key facet of the openness that ensures the ongoing growth and sustainability of the Internet.


It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that governments began to realize the significance of the Internet and feel the need to consider how best to govern it. Prior to that time, Internet governance issues, which were mostly related to the development of technical standards and the operation of the network infrastructure, were being handled by the technical and academic groups involved in its construction.


In 1997, the US Government initiated a process to transition the management of the Internet names and numbers to the private sector. The process resulted in the establishment of ICANN in 1998, which set the beginning of a new era in Internet governance. In the same year, the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference adopted a resolution to convene a World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). The WSIS, took place over two phases one in Geneva (2001-2003) and the second in Tunis (2003-2005) and was the platform where Internet Governance was discussed internationally for the first time with the participation of stakeholders from governments, private sector, civil society, technical and academic community, and international organizations.


“In managing, promoting and protecting its presence in our lives, we need to be no less creative than those who invented it. Clearly, there is a need for governance, but that does not necessarily mean that it has to be done in the traditional way, for something that is so very different,” said former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, when speaking about the Internet during the second phase of WSIS. When the Secretary General of the United Nations says that traditional means of governance may not work because the Internet is so different, it must be true. Those profound words inspired the creation of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), which was created by the UN Secretary General in 2004 to develop a working definition of Internet governance.


The principle of openness was not absent from the WGIG deliberations. In carrying out its assignment, the WGIG was quite open and inclusive as it looked into the broader picture of the issues affecting Internet governance, and was keen to take on a wide spectrum of views into consideration. One key proposal that emerged from the WGIG was the creation of a forum on all Internet public policy issues. Member states gathered in Tunis in 2005 agreed to the proposal, and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was established to serve as the global forum for Internet Governance. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the IGF, and the UN General Assembly will decide on renewing its mandate later this year. There is no question that the IGF has become the place for open, inclusive and multistakeholder Internet governance dialogue, and the dialogue it fosters has helped to build bridges across all the actors in the field from developed and developing countries. The continuation of the IGF beyond 2015 is essential to the future of the Internet as it exists today – an open network that connects the world’s people and economies.


NETmundial is yet another open Internet governance process that was initiated two years ago by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, when she announced plan to host an international conference on Internet governance. The Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, also known as NETmundial, was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in April 2014, with over 1,400 participants both on the ground and remotely, representing a range of stakeholders from about 97 countries. The outcome of the meeting was a 10-page consensus document that outlined key Internet governance principles and a roadmap for the future evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem. The entire NETmundial process, including its outcome document, demonstrated that open, inclusive and multistakeholder governance is the right model to ensure that the Internet continues to evolve. 


Among the principles outlined in the NETmundial outcome document, several underscored the importance of Internet openness at various levels, from open standards and architecture, online freedoms, creativity and innovation, multistakeholder institutions and open and inclusive governance processes. The document made particular reference to the concept of permission-less innovation and emphasized that the Internet should continue to be one un-fragmented network of all networks.


Another significant development in the Internet governance space was the March 2015 announcement by the US government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that it intends to transition its stewardship role of the IANA functions to the global multistakeholder community. IANA, or the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, refers to a set of technical functions performed by ICANN under several agreements with a number of entities, including a contract with NTIA. Those technical functions relate to the system of unique identifiers (domain names, IP addressing and protocol parameters) that keep the Internet running. In its announcement, NTIA asked ICANN to facilitate a multistakeholder process to develop a transition proposal for NTIA’s consideration, and emphasized that the proposal must follow four key principles. It must:


  • Support and enhance the multistakeholder model;
  • Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;
  • Meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services;
  • Maintain the openness of the Internet.

NTIA also specified that it would not accept any proposal that replaces NTIA’s role with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution.


It comes as no surprise that principles pertaining to multistakeholder governance, Internet stability and security and Internet openness are among the criteria outlined by NTIA for the prospective proposal. Why? Because the IANA Stewardship Transition is important for both the technical stability and unity of the Internet.


For a little over a year now, several diverse working groups related to the communities of the IANA functions have done an enormous amount of work to develop a transition proposal. In addition, the multistakeholder community has also begun developing recommendations on how to strengthen ICANN’s accountability mechanisms in the absence of its historical relationship with NTIA. The two draft proposals on both the IANA Stewardship Transition and Enhancing ICANN Accountability processes have been out for public comment. Working groups from both processes are discussing possible face-to-face meetings to deliberate on comments received and gear up for the ICANN54 international public meeting that will take place in Dublin, Ireland on 18-22 October where further, and hopefully final, consultations with community will take place. Once the proposals are finalized and submitted to the ICANN Board, the proposals will be transmitted to NTIA for review and evaluation. The final phase of the transition will be the implementation of the proposal elements necessary before the end of the IANA functions contract with NTIA in September 2016.


Both the IANA Stewardship Transition and Enhancing ICANN Accountability processes have demonstrated, once again, that open, bottom-up, and multistakeholder governance mechanisms are the most appropriate and effective solutions for an environment as vibrant and dynamic as the Internet.


About Baher Esmat

Baher Esmat is Vice President of Stakeholder Engagement at ICANN Middle East. In his role, he is part of the advance guard of Internet proponents for a free, open and affordable Internet within the Arab world.

He joined ICANN in 2006 after a four-year tenure at the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Baher is a former member of the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance, and served as Chair of the Egyptian IPv6 Task Force. He is currently serving on the Internet Governance Forum’s Multistakeholder Advisory Committee, and the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering and a Master’s degree in Computer Science.


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