Following the successful completion of the IANA transition in late 2016, those practicing Internet governance had big shoes to fill in 2017. Looking back, there was no similar watershed event defining Internet governance this year. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t important developments and stories.
Whether looking broadly at issues like cybersecurity, privacy & surveillance, free expression or digital trade, or at the governing of specific technologies like Internet domain names or Internet connected devices, what became clear was the constant tension between state(s) and the need for new transnational Internet governance institutions, or sets of rules that govern human activity online. This was evident looking at some of the stories we covered, ranked by pageviews/per month.
Most viewed artcicles in 2017
In some cases, states are trying to impose their will on Internet governance in order to achieve domestic objectives. For instance: the attempt by Chinese government leaders to use domestic policies to link cybersecurity with national security (something we explored in depth at our May workshop and at other events), to achieve data localization, mandatory equipment security reviews, and LEA assistance from operators; or the US Congress’ proposed legislation that addresses human trafficking by targeting Internet platform safe harbor protections and, as a result, threatens innovative, free and open online services. In other cases, the Internet’s native governance structures, like ICANN or Registrars and other service providers, are struggling to reconcile their transnational contractual regimes with conflicting domestic or regional policies on personal data protection, or (un)willingly becoming points of control in the debate over free expression online. These types of conflicts are not necessarily new, but they did seem more prevalent in 2017.
It’s also become increasingly clear that traditional forms of statecraft and intergovernmental cooperation are simply not up to the task of Internet governance in a connected world. Examples abound. The nationalistic tendencies of the current US administration seems to have resulted in stalled domestic cyber policy that looks incapable of dealing with transnational problems. Governments continue their long history of censoring communication when it conflicts with their interests, e.g., the Spanish government’s seizure of the .CAT TLD registry in an attempt to control the Catalan people. Intergovernmental cooperation around other traditionally state-led issues, like digital trade, are similarly characterized by failure or an inability to move forward productively. In the recent Ministerial Conference of WTO, no progress was made regarding digital trade. The mandate of the working program on e-commerce was extended, but this program has been in place for nearly 20 years and has not brought any binding agreement on digital trade among the governments. Such inability to reach a binding agreement does not only stem from the mode of governance (intergovernmental), but also from a lack of support and attention from other stakeholder groups. Some civil society groups are unable to recognize the benefits of free trade and fail to see that prohibiting data localization rules can enhance global connectivity and strengthen the rights of users.
But it is not all doom and gloom. If you look more closely, there is a rich institutional landscape of governance structures in some areas, with robust market and networked forms addressing problems and a more limited role for hierarchies (e.g., states) that rule by authority. And into the void(s) that do exist we are seeing entirely new institutions being proposed, from a non-state based attribution organization leveraging the scientific method, and a move by the Internet Society to create a transnational associative cluster of organizations and individuals to work collectively on pressing issues, to new technological forms of information sharing among IoT devices and network operators that address operational asymmetries and incentives. And that’s just stuff in which we’re involved.
As we’ve said before, we think there is a fundamental re-ordering between public and private power underway, as well as reactionary trends towards nationalism, re-aligning state jurisdictions and cyberspace, and identity politics. The takeaway this year is that demand for transnational forms of Internet governance has normalized. Here’s to making progress on the institutional front in 2018. We’ll be actively following and participating in the developments.
Happy New Year!
— The Internet Governance Project
 We eliminated 3 articles that had been recently posted to avoid the “pop” effect of recent publication. Nonetheless, these articles covered similar ground looking at the recent ISOC Feasibility Study, the ongoing Thick Whois debate at ICANN, and the lack of progress in discussions over digital trade at the WTO.