As the Internet becomes more pervasive in society, we become less interested in knowing who manages this “network of networks”. We assume that it is a permanent feature of modern living like electricity or tap water as we take advantage of its seemingly limitless potential in improving our lives.
Information about its technical administration is demanded only when it stops working, and this is often limited to dealing with local providers and government regulators. But most of the time, we surf cyberspace without being aware of the “invisible Internet” that encompasses the whole world.
So, who governs the global Internet? No one. No single entity, company, or central authority has total control over the World Wide Web. It is open, decentralized, distributed, and interconnected because the stakeholders who collaborated to painstakingly build the physical and digital infrastructures of the Web had consistently advocated to preserve this design.
What gets discussed more often is the regulation of the Internet fueled mainly by the arbitrary actions of paranoid authorities who wanted to police the social media activities of their citizens.
There are varying levels of censorship, but we take comfort in the fact that netizens have learned to circumvent repressive rules aside from forming networks and safe spaces dedicated to countering digital despots.
Equally important is the matter of managing the Internet, which involves the allocation of numbered resources such as IP addresses, unique identifiers, and domain names. There is less spotlight on this mainly because people assume that technical issues are best left in the hands of academics, experts, and scientists. This perspective ignores the evolution of the Internet from being a research platform for a select few into a web of networks dedicated to serving the information needs of humanity.
The Internet has long ceased to be an esoteric academic project as it became a hugely popular space and network open for public use over the past three and a half decades. The pioneer developers worked hard with various institutions to set the codes and standards that made data sharing possible and turned the Internet into a functioning global open network.
Because of this, the management of the Internet became a global responsibility as well. It also means that its future will be decided by stakeholders who manage and use it. Therefore, it is up to us if the Internet will remain an open platform that enables us to lead better lives.
We certainly cannot allow narrow-minded bureaucrats to redesign the Internet and transform it into a virtual panopticon. Even as we acknowledge the role of commercialization in popularizing the Internet, it is also dangerous to equate the work of profit-seeking developers and tech giants with harmless innovation.
Technological solutions are neither good nor bad but they have real-life consequences as they get entangled with socio-political realities of the world. Internet-mediated disruption is being invoked by governments to seek tighter controls and more rigid laws.
Fragmenting the Internet is being done in the name of upholding social norms and public order. The “splInternet” is a specter that bedevils us even if this is the unintended result of some of our actions in response to the polarizing impact of our online activities.
As we become more overwhelmed with a fast-changing fragile world, we need to forcefully reject false solutions, whether articulated by tyrants or tycoons, that ultimately aim to undermine the open nature of the Internet.
Instead, we should defend the role of stakeholders in deliberating what needs to be addressed on matters relating to the Internet. It is a reminder that despite the perception that only geeks are interested in developing the protocols of the Internet, its management is actually relevant to all who use it.
This requires the constant promotion of the right of ALL stakeholders to have a voice in designing the Internet. At the Asia-Pacific School of Internet Governance and the Asia-Pacific Region Internet Governance Forum held recently in Singapore, I learned that the precise name for this process and approach is called “multistakeholderism”.
Applied to our particular context, it necessitates a continuous dialogue between stakeholders that include the national (e.g. DICT, NTC, DepEd, Congress) and local governments (LGUs), telcos, the technical community, academe, civil society, and Internet users. This is not an easy undertaking as it may involve acrimonious debates on complex and extremely sensitive issues.
Tension may arise due to conflicting interests, and some might attempt to dominate the process which could derail the supposedly free exchange of ideas. This is not a far-fetched scenario given the disappointing record of the government on how it consults the public on key policy proposals. But our resolve to fight for a better and inclusive Internet must be stronger. Stakeholders should remain firm and uphold the open and bottom-up approach.
Internet governance is seldom mentioned in digital literacy programs and online media training sessions which is unfortunate since every netizen can benefit from being informed about the collaborative origins of the Internet, the democratic legacy of the multistakeholder model, and the provocative but empowering idea that everyone has the right to be heard about what kind of Internet is needed in our world.
Mong Palatino is an activist, blogger, and former legislator. He is one of the fellows of the 2022 Asia-Pacific Region Internet Governance Forum held in Singapore