The internet has brought with it very many wonders and joys, but by common consent there have also been a number of unintended, unforeseen and unwanted consequences. Some of the debates taking place about the future of the internet are, in essence, questions about how we deal with these side effects. The problem is that, while there are a range of entirely legitimate views about what is a wanted and what is an unwanted consequence and why it has arisen, often there are also running through the arguments two quite distinct agendas that are not always openly acknowledged or identified.
At the risk of oversimplifying, on the one hand you have what we might characterise as economic questions: issues between companies, sometimes overlaid with a national or regional flavour but essentially they are about what will help or harm a particular set of commercial interests. In general it is fairly easy to spot these. The debate about net neutrality is an example.
Then you have what you might call the democratic agenda, arguments where the internet is variously characterized as being either a subversive arm of US foreign policy and capitalist globalization generally, or as being a potential or actual liberator and guarantor of human rights. A number of regimes have certainly been very distressed by the way the technology is allowing their people to access for the first time alternative views of their country’s history or the state sponsored religion. These present challenges to the very basis on which the current government is founded.
How are we to resolve these questions? Again at the risk of oversimplifying things there seem to be two identifiable, if extreme, positions.
On the one hand there are those who say Governments of any and every stripe have no place at the table. Everything should be left to the private sector and the operation of market forces. Despots will just have to get used to the free flow of information and unbridled artistic expression but, hey, isn’t that a good thing anyway?
Others argue market forces have too many well known imperfections to be trusted with something which has become so important, so integral to the way in which large parts of modern commercial and social life are now conducted. The very success of the internet means it is of even greater importance that reliable ways are found to guarantee its integrity. Governments therefore have a vital role to play. The interests of the shareholders and the senior managers who own and control the big internet companies are not always co-terminus with the wider public or national interest, especially where a lot of techno-babble erects barriers to consumers’ understanding or where in some sectors the costs or other obstacles to entry into the market can be so high. And, hey, where is it written anyway that capitalist enterprise will put liberty ahead of profit? Ask Google and Yahoo.
The answer, as ever, will probably be found somewhere between these two poles. The IGF is a brave attempt to try to map out that middle ground. It is not guaranteed to succeed. At the end of the day Governments will have their way, or at any rate they will attempt to and in making the attempt a great deal of energy and resources can be wasted. Maybe even lasting damage could be done if the internet starts to fragment into islands of non-interoperable systems.
Winston Churchill famously said he favoured “jaw jaw not war war” and who could disagree with such a sentiment? But if “jaw jaw” turns out to be simply a way of maintaining the illusion that something is happening, when in fact it is not, then one is bound to wonder what the point of it all really is. The many wise words spoken at and during IGF meetings have to find a channel that allows them to be translated into some kind of concrete action.
The future of ICANN as such is a detail, an important detail but a detail nonetheless. The true test of the IGF is whether or not the Governments of the world, or at any rate enough of them, believe that when it comes to the internet things are either already satisfactory or soon will be. The challenge to industry is to convince them that they are. If the IGF helps to deliver that it will have served its purpose and justified its existence a million times over.
However, as Sharm el Sheikh approaches I have a sense that we might be falling into a rather comfortable set of assumptions. Now that it looks like the IGF is likely to carry on, the job has been done. We can take our foot off the pedal. We will overlook the fact that several key players have opted out. We will have inaugurated a very agreeable annual bean feast that will sustain a semblance of relevance and a sense of forward movement. Until a crisis hits.