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WCIT12: The future of the Internet at stake?

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Source: Screen capture of a Google ‘Take Action’ page


Note: This post is an edited version of the introductory section of a paper (Internet Governance and the Informational Economy: Challenges and Opportunities*) that I presented at the International Studies Association Annual Conference 2012 (San Diego, California, USA) as part of the panel “Perspectives on Global Governance and the Internet”, 2 April 2012. For a full copy of this paper, please contact me (@joefturcotte or jfturco@yorku.ca).

 From 3-14 December 2012 the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will convene the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). This conference and the ongoing preparatory meetings of the ITU throughout 2012 could have far reaching consequences for the international governance of the Internet and, in turn, the burgeoning digital informational economy. The WCIT process includes a review of the International Telecommunications Regulation (ITRs) treaty that was signed in 1989. That this treaty was created long-before the impressive growth of the Internet as a facilitator for rapid technological and social change necessitates contemporary action to ensure that global Internet governance meets the challenges and opportunities of the Digital Era.

However, as is evident from a column from Robert M. McDowell, a commissioner from the United States’ (US) Federal Communication Commission (FCC), this process will be far from simple. According to McDowell (2012), the WCIT process could “upend the Internet’s flourishing regime…[which has]…insulated the Internet from economic and technical regulation and quickly [become] the greatest deregulatory success of our time.”

It is hard to argue with McDowell regarding the Internet’s success as a medium for economic growth, social and cultural transformation as well as global democratic engagement. Since its launch in the mid-

1980s and through its rapid development in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Internet has facilitated seemingly unprecedented changes in the economic, social, cultural and political realms.

However, has been pointed out, the Internet’s rapid growth has been far from unproblematic. While helping to usher in a number of beneficial results, the Internet has also enabled illicit activities as well as technological and social changes that have called into question traditional social, economic and business modes of practice. The double-edged sword that is the ongoing development of the Internet requires coordinated global responses to Internet governance in order to stimulate beneficial and sustainable growth the world over.

The fractured international governance system of the post-Global Financial Crisis (GFC) era makes coordinating states with varying domestic priorities and perspectives increasingly difficult. Mirroring the deadlocks found in the Doha Round of World Trade Organization (WTO) trade talks, differing perspectives and priorities amongst Western countries, most noticeably in the United States and Europe, and between their rising counterparts, such as China and India, have made global cooperation and coordination elusive. Amidst this backdrop, cleavages between developed and developing countries are spilling into the realm of international Internet governance and complicating efforts for forging a harmonized front.

Various states within the international system are seeking different goals for Internet governance within the informational economy. Countries at varying levels of development and social stability have divergent perspectives on key issues including the intersection(s) of intellectual property (IP), privacy and security as they relate to global economic growth and development. Domestic and transnational industries and corporations seek different levels and types or protection while a host of civil society groups and actors seek to protect rights-based freedoms for the global citizenry by contributing to policy processes.

Technological and social changes are calling into question traditional and historic conceptions of IP, privacy and security, creating both opportunities and challenges for economic innovation and cultural creativity for developed and developing peoples alike. Therefore, there is a need to devise democratic and equitable forms of Internet governance that account for the heterogenous nature of the global system and protect and promote sustainable economic development while attending to the needs of various social and cultural communities as well as actors.

Meeting the global nature of these challenges and capitalizing upon the promises offered by the Digital Era and the informational economy while respecting normative and rights-based claims requires international harmonization and coordination. The aftermath of the GFC illustrates that sovereign state are incapable of drafting or enforcing national/domestic laws to confront these problems on their own.

The challenges and opportunities facing Internet governance for the digital informational economy highlight the need for coordinated mechanisms to promote and protect balanced governance of the Internet. Three interrelated issue-areas – intellectual property, privacy and security – demonstrate this with respect to Internet governance and the informational economy and centre around technological and social changes that are disrupting traditional notions of access (or openness) and control.

In the global arena, developed and developing states as well as private and public actors from industry and civil society need to be taken into account when formulating international Internet governance mechanisms. To do so, a multi-stakeholder approach for Internet governance that compliments existing international forums while generating and reinforcing common norms for global economic growth and stability as well as rights-based protections based on democratic frameworks.

The creation, promotion and dissemination of core Internet Governance Principles under the auspices of the existing international system will allow the myriad international bodies involved in Internet governance to harmonize their efforts towards promoting globally sustainable socio-economic growth and development.

For more information see:

“Inside the Issues 3.10 | Internet Governance”

“Clashes over internet rules expected at UN conference”

“ITU and Google face off at Dubai conference over future of the internet”

“Google rallies opposition to UN takeover of Internet governance”

“The Battle for the Future of the Internet?”

“The Internet as a Global Commons?”

“World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT)”

“The U.N. Shouldn’t Make Decisions About an Open Internet Behind Closed Doors”

“The Troubling Growth of High-Tech Regulation, Lobbying, and Rent-Seeking”

“Iran and Internet Governance”

* This paper has been funded in part by grants from the Canadian Media Research Consortium and the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, the York University Graduate Students’ Association Conference Fund, and CUPE 3903 Professional Development Fund.

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