Inside Economic Diplomacy Podcast- Episode 4: Internet Governance
Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
OMAR PARBHOO, SENIOR ADVISOR, BUREAU OF ECONOMIC AND BUSINESS AFFAIRS, DEPARTMENT OF STATE: A few months ago, the FCC, or the Federal Communications Commission, made a landmark decision regarding net neutrality in the United States. They voted on a new set of rules that would prohibit internet service providers from blocking or throttling online access, or from prioritizing certain types of internet traffic. All of this was done to ensure, as the FCC puts it, an open internet now and in the future. But the attention this ruling has been getting brought to mind a different and more global aspect of open internet. And that's internet governance.
Many people may not be aware as to how the internet is governed or why governance is so important. But on today's show, we'll discuss the topic with a department lead on the issue and also hear from the head of an important organization that works to keep the internet open around the world.
I'm Omar Parbhoo. Welcome to another episode of Inside Economic Diplomacy.
Here in the United States, the internet has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget how widespread and important it really is. But when you think about it, it's central to almost everything, like education, health, business, our social lives, and most importantly for me, podcasts. But underpinning all of the wonderful things we're able to do online is an inclusive governance structure that is driven by the internet's most active and engaged user communities. These users contribute to a bottom-up development of protocols and procedures that keeps the internet running smoothly.
Now, there are some out there that would like to centralize governance. In other words, leaving it just to government leaders to decide how the internet is run. That in turn, could mean increased censorship and control and less innovation, which would hinder economic and social development.
But before we get there, I wanted to get a better sense of how the current governance structure works. I sat down with Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda who is the U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy. I first asked him to explain exactly how the internet is governed today.
AMBASSADOR DANIEL SEPULVEDA, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETRY OF STATE AND U.S. COORDINAOR FOR INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION POLICY, BUREAU OF ECONOMIC AND BUSINESS AFFAIRS, DEPARTMENT OF STATE: The easiest way to understand it is to think about it as an organic process. Right? So in the beginning, there was a Defense Department contract issued for academics and technologists to look at how you would be able to communicate across networks if any one part of the network went down. And then that was then privatized and used in global communication systems. And once that was extrapolated in on top of that, the application of the world wide web, which is an application-- email is an application, search is an application-- started building on the internet protocol foundation, you had the deployment of the global internet. But all of that happened voluntarily.
So networks connect to each other voluntarily. They do so through private agreements. All of the technology and rules that enable one computer to communicate with another computer, as well as the naming and numbering coordination functions, are done through, in this case, the nonprofit organization known as ICANN, which is composed of all the stakeholders who have an interest in the internet-- their open organizations.
OMAR PARBHOO: And what does ICANN stand for?
AMBASSADOR DANIEL SEPULVEDA: The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
How is this different from historical communications? Historically, country code phone numbers were delegated out of the International Telecommunications Union from Geneva and distributed by nation, not by region. The way that internet protocol addresses are distributed is regionally-- the regional internet registries. And they're not distributed by government. They're distributed through the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers.
And so this core functional aspect of it-- which also includes the Internet Engineering Task Force, which creates what are the rules that enable devices to communicate with each other-- are all voluntary, and private, and consensus-based. And as more people come onto the networks-- so now, we're at 3 billion people connected to the internet. That's half the world. In 1998, it was pretty much just the United States and Europe, and only in the hundreds of millions. Right?
It's been a dramatic growth rate. There hasn't been a commensurate dramatic growth rate in the diversity of people participating in internet governance itself. And that has led to some frustration on the part of the developing world, because they don't feel like they're as represented as they should be in this ecosystem. And these are all words I never used to use before I had this job, but they mean something to me now and I'm trying to convey them in a way that a normal person would understand.
OMAR PARBHOO: It's complex. I understand.
AMBASSADOR DANIEL SEPULVEDA: It's complex, but it's also super interesting. Right? Because it is an experiment. We don't have any other global resource that's managed this way. Right?
OMAR PARBHOO: Right?
AMBASSADOR DANIEL SEPULVEDA: And it is a form of self-governance.
OMAR PARBHOO: So what's the concern? It seems like we already have a good model in place.
AMBASSADOR DANIEL SEPULVEDA: The concern is that it challenges traditional communications regulators, because traditionally, communications regulators have had authority that is now in the hands of what we call the multi-stakeholder community. And they feel like, well, historically, we've had this authority. Why shouldn't we have it under this space? And they want it.
It also challenges the traditional Westphalian model of sovereignty. Right? So when you're regionally governing an asset or internationally governing an asset without the sovereign in any given geography controlling what enters and exits the market, there are people who represent governments where they don't like that.
So Russia, China, in particular, have a very strong belief that there is something called digital sovereignty, where they believe they should be able to control the information that enters and exits their country. We strongly oppose that idea. We believe that access to knowledge and information is a basic human right and that there isn't a sovereign right to override that basic human right.
OMAR PARBHOO: So what Ambassador Sepulveda laid out is that the internet is managed by a globally distributed system in which stakeholders from the government, industry, civil society, academia, and the technical community each perform their respective roles on equal footing and without any central governing authority.
To keep that intact, the United States is pushing back against efforts by some governments to centralize control over the internet. We want to ensure that the internet remains a global interconnected platform for innovation and the sharing of ideas. Now, it can seem counterintuitive for a government representative to advocate for less government control, so I asked Ambassador Sepulveda to expand on that a bit.
AMBASSADOR DANIEL SEPULVEDA: There is a difference between the government's proper role in creating a legal policy and regulatory environment that encourages investment in networks, that encourages the deployment of networks, that encourages people having the skills to use networks. We're for all of those things. What we are not for is government having the power to tell people how to design technology, or to pick winners and losers on the internet, or to design the networks to operate in such a way as to fulfill some sort of, what we would believe it to be, an anti-democratic, small "d", anti-human rights agenda.
OMAR PARBHOO: So there you have it. Our government's stated goal is to ensure that any child born anywhere in the world has access to an open global internet to innovate, learn, organize, and express yourself free from undue interference or censorship. But we're not the only ones out there working for this cause. There are others stakeholders, like, the Internet Society for one. It's a global organization dedicated to ensuring that the internet stays open and transparent. I had the pleasure of speaking with Kathryn Brown, the President and CEO of the Internet Society, as she explained why open internet is so important to them.
Now, before we get to the interview, I should note that it was conducted over the phone. So apologies in advance if the sound quality is less than perfect.
Your organization has a refreshingly simple slogan, "The internet is for everyone." Can you elaborate just a bit and tell me what that means in practice?
KATHRYN BROWN, INTERNET SOCIETY PRESIDENT & CEO KATHRYN BROWN: "The internet is for everyone" has always been our cause, from the time of our creation, actually. And it's good to know, and smart to know, that the Internet Society was actually established around the very same time as the internet itself was developing in the United States, actually. And its purpose and cause was to ensure that the internet would be for everyone.
We quickly forget that it was not in the beginning, that it was actually an academic network that was used by academics, and then slowly became known to the whole world as a powerful tool for connection to each other. A third of the world is on the internet. 2/3 are still not on the internet. And so our cause remains that we think the internet should be everywhere for everyone. And it's part of our creed, if you will, around the world.
OMAR PARBHOO: And how do you realize that cause? I mean, why does an organization like yours need to exist?
KATHRYN BROWN: So imagine in the beginning it was little known-- it was that the benefits of the internet were not known. As it has evolved, as it has grown, the issues around its deployment, its use, its governance, its security, have grown along with it. And we take it upon ourselves as really having our roots in the technical community to advocate for its continual evolution, for its continual openness, and for what we call the bottom-up nature of its ongoing evolution. And that is that it is not a centralized network, but a de-centralized network of networks that allows for interconnection anywhere by anyone around the world.
OMAR PARBHOO: You mentioned your organization playing an important role in ensuring that the internet remains open. You have more than 65,000 members globally. But how are their voices heard? In what way do they have an impact on how the internet is governed?
KATHRYN BROWN: The Internet Society houses the IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force, and that is the voluntary group of internet engineers who come together to write the code for the continuing evolving internet.
So we are rooted from our beginnings in the technology of the internet. It is inside of the Internet Engineering Task Force that the ongoing building blocks for the internet are coded-- are given to the world, by the way-- they're there for the taking, for developers, et cetera. And that bottom up, that voluntary idea, is one that permeates us.
Our chapters have grown up around the world very much from the technical community. They are folks who want to see and build the internet everywhere we are. And you find in those chapters folks who are dedicated to making the internet happen for their communities. And I mean, by that, technically, I mean by building interchange points, by teaching themselves and communities how to use the internet, by wiring their schools-- all of those things that allow the internet to grow.
In addition, you find many of the chapters caring very much about the public policy issues that arise with the evolution of the internet. And they are connected to the community. They speak to their governments. They have a local voice in the ongoing evolution of the internet.
OMAR PARBHOO: Well, let me say thank you, because as a user of the internet all the time, I tend to forget the technical aspects that go behind it. So we appreciate that work.
If I can ask one last question. What advice do you have for people who believe in an open and free internet? What can we do?
KATHRYN BROWN: Well, first of all, what you just said is so important-- that we not take for granted the fact that the internet is unique in its attributes. And one of its main attributes is its openness and in its ability for anyone to access it, and its global nature.
By sort of shrugging and taking it for granted, one risk, by the way, that others who do not appreciate the global openness of the internet-- those who would say it is not in our interests for people, users, to be able to go anywhere they want, for users to have permissionless innovation, for users to express and collaborate, join with each other, voice their opinions, voice things that others may find annoying-- some of the laws of the world, say, right now, or not in line with majority thinking-- that they could be stopped from doing that.
So I think users have to be aware that this is something to watch for. This is something that they need to be aware of and voice their own concerns on the internet, by the way, which is a very good vehicle for organizational issues and folks to be able to express their own views to and among the people in their community and to their governments. And that the openness of the internet remain an absolute must across the globe. You see it every day. You see folks who use it demanding that this happened and we should make sure that keeps happening.
OMAR PARBHOO: It's all too easy to take the internet's open and global architecture for granted. But as Kathy Brown said, the internet operates that way by design, not by accident. And it's critical to keep it that way. But I think all of you who are able to download this podcast realize that.
I hope today we were able to provide some additional insight into what internet governance is and why it's important to all of us who rely on regular open access. But as always, we'd love to hear your thoughts. So please leave a comment on our Facebook page, facebook.com/econbizengage, or on Twitter @EconEngage. And of course, please share this episode with all of your friends.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.