It is my observation that the governing consensus of the Internet is starkly different to the one in the ‘real world’. As the two are increasingly being forced together by the interweaving of the Internet into every day life, a new consensus must be built. There is, however, more common ground than the first glance might suggest, and perhaps even some useful historical comparisons.
Most government is in practice pretty technocratic and slow. Effective law enforcement as an example is complex and technical, and the policies that have a prima facia appeal are often ineffective or even counterproductive. Prohibition in the United States is an example along those lines. Real world government is usually full of imperfect compromises, but on average they work better than the alternative.
Governing of the Internet is also pretty technocratic. If you are not conversant with the technology and lingo you are not regarded as capable of forming a useful opinion. Ignorant policymakers with a new wheeze are a positive liability. Internet technocrats, however, have to learn to appreciate imperfect compromises, and that the general public won’t always agree with them, or behave as expected.
In terms of governance, the Internet has in many ways reflected the evolution of conventional politics over centuries. Vint Cerf and Sir Tim Berners-Lee are both in their way somewhat reminiscent of King Alfred the Great. They have brought people together and inspired trust in their viewpoints in a landscape of tribalism. Yet in many areas the Internet is coming to resemble the mercantile city-states of the 14th Century that are closely associated with Machiavelli. The powerful and wealthy can cynically manipulate the innocent and idealistic; motives and agendas are obscured. The harsh reality is that the Internet will never be the Libertarian utopia that some hope for, but a new domain for the same old political realities.
While there is a lot to learn from history, there are some important and obvious attributes of the Internet that are new and problematic for traditional approaches to government. The Internet was designed to circumvent attempts to block it; the original intention was to build resilience in the face of physical attack, but it can be just as effective against state intervention for political reasons. The Internet can adapt overnight to interventions that take years to develop. Borders exist, but can be passed in milliseconds with little in the way of controls. While routine state checks take anything from minutes to months in the offline world, anything that routinely takes more than a few seconds on the Internet is impractical. The view that governing any behaviour on the Internet is simply too hard, or that it has too many negative consequences, has some merit.
There is one simple driver that will force change. When the balance of economic, social and political activity takes place through the Internet, the general population will expect and demand that they have their say in how it is run. The Internet is embodied by physical devices interacting with real people inside the jurisdictions of real countries. The idea that the Internet is another plane of existence beyond the law is delusional, and will not be a reason for inaction accepted by the electorate. People will demand action from their political structures, and their politicians will act.
Ultimately that means there can be no division between the mechanisms in how a country – and indeed the global community – is run offline and online. In the interim, the collisions between online and offline governance and government risks chaos and suffering as political systems adapt. Those who make practical policy offline and online need to become expert in each others trade in order to minimise that chaos.
The IGF is therefore of great importance as the place where these groups meet and communicate. By building understanding, learning from good practice and generally coming to terms with the way the Internet is changing global society – and how global society is changing the Internet – the IGF can accelerate positive change. The UK delegation brings with them many examples that provide evidence that there can be a positive future for Internet Governance. They also bring with them the belief and hope that our conventional political systems can learn and adapt to the new challenges of the Internet. That is vital, as to quote a former Prime Minister of the UK, “There is no alternative”.