Unless something drastic (and possibly quite unpleasant) shakes up the international order over the course of the 21st century, the Internet will never be “regulated” or “governed” by a single entity. The Net is a complex set of technologies that impacts almost every area of life on planet Earth, yet despite promising digital wonders to billions of people there is nevertheless a real risk of the Internet beginning to “segment” into nationally-controlled protectorates over the coming decades, with surveillance, censorship and controlled access to cyberspace growing more widespread.
We also seem to be witnessing a more “weaponised” online environment, with governments, terrorists, criminal gangs and bored teenagers developing and deploying programs and applications that are increasingly being described in military terms (and, indeed, one MEP we spoke to suggested that the EU should consider an export-ban on “digital arms”).
Nevertheless, despite the absence of a single authority there is an abundance of discussion (and some coordination) taking place between NGOs, governments, international organisations and private corporations aimed at achieving a sort of soft “internet governance”. In fact, Debating Europe will be covering one such forum on the 22-24 January when we will try to get some of your questions answered by panellists at the 7th International CPDP (Computers, Privacy & Data Protection) Conference in Brussels.
In the meantime, though, we had a question sent in from John, who thought the balance between self-regulation and legislation online needed to be seriously reviewed:
Individual companies, however big they are, seem to be unwilling or unable to combine their huge knowledge of how the internet works to sort out the several major problems that continue to plague cyberspace.
Maybe they are staying focused on their own, narrower commercial interests or they find it too difficult to co-operate with other firms whom they are normally competing against. Either way, in the absence of this kind of action by industry, governments must step forward to speak for and protect the broader public interest.
This is particularly true during times of sluggish or zero economic growth when businesses will be less and less inclined to take a longer term or more expansive view of things as they struggle to maintain existing revenues.
We took John’s comment to David Tennenhouse, Vice President of Technology Policy at Microsoft, to get his reaction. Tennenhouse responded that people have been predicting a crisis in internet governance since the mid-1990s, and yet the “multi-stakeholder” approach (bringing together companies, civil society and governments) had not yet failed.
We put the same comment to Marjetje Schaake, a Dutch MEP who sits with the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament. She argued that it was certainly the role of government to protect the public ineterest because companies ultimately have only one goal: which is to make a profit. Whilst cautioning against over-regulation, she argued that the EU should not be afraid of regulating new online technologies as they develop.
Are private corporations unwilling or unable to solve the major problems that plague cyberspace? Are they too focused on narrow commercial interests to cooperate? Should governments step forward to protect the broader public interest online? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.