In 1964, Marshall McLuhan (a Canadian, by the way) famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” This phrase popped into my head last week as I listened to the opening speakers at the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi.
McLuhan meant that the form in which a message is delivered – the medium – embeds itself in the meaning of the message. The medium influences how the message is perceived and understood and is therefore inseparable from the message itself.
What does this have to do with the Internet?
The bottom-up, multi-stakeholder governance model that currently governs the Internet enables decisions to be made at ‘Internet speed’, and has allowed it to thrive. Any other governance model would NOT have resulted in the Internet becoming the incredible economic and social force it has become. The success of the Internet is inextricably linked to the way in which it is run.
The organic mix of public and private entities at the regional, national and international levels that are at the heart of governing the Internet is the reason why the Internet became a success – it ensures that those who have a stake in the success of the Internet are the ones making decisions about its future. The model also ensures that those decisions are made in a manner that is in keeping with the dynamic nature of the Internet.
This model for governing the Internet is also behind its democratising power, and its ability to promote innovation, human rights and social and economic development. On the other hand, countries in which the Internet is blocked, controlled or shut down by governments often have poor human rights records and their populations cannot benefit fully from what the Internet has to offer.
Therefore, I am disheartened by the thought of what the Internet, and indeed the world’s economic and social situation, would look like if a different model, for example, a multi-lateral model – such as is employed at many United Nations agencies like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – were used. That model has worked well in the past for different industries. Case in point, the ITU (which has been around for more than a century), has ensured a robust and functional telecommunications network globally.
However, what would the Internet be like if a multi-lateral body were in charge? As history shows, it is often not the issues of the day that influence the discussions at these institutions. Rather, multi-lateral treaty-based organizations are typically hierarchical, top-down bodies that exist in a hyper-political environment. As such, they are susceptible to political intervention, influence and trade-offs, are slow-moving, and involve decision-makers so far removed from the implications of their choices that discussions, and resulting policies, can be very challenging. This is demonstrated with Dr. Hamadoun Touré’s comments at ITU’s Plenipotentiary last year.
As numerous nations and multi-lateral bodies continue to push their agendas, Internet governance has been the subject of quite a few media stories lately, and not just by the core Internet-focused bloggers. While it concerns me to hear about the push by some to move the Internet away from its current model, it is important that these issues be discussed and debated openly.
These discussions should take place not only in the media, but in fora like the Internet Governance Forum, where certain states like India, Brazil and South Africa were openly questioned last week about their proposal (.PDF) to create a new body (within the UN structure) to oversee the Internet.
Their proposal received cross constituency, real-time feedback from the stakeholders and experts at the multi-stakeholder IGF. In essence, feedback was provided on a major proposal in a timely manner by the very organizations, nations and experts that the proposal affected. This is the multi-stakeholder model at its best.
The irony was not lost on many of us that the very model the group set to dismantle was the model that proved its power in this discussion. Such a fulsome and timely debate would likely not have happened in a multi-lateral treaty-based environment.
With apologies to McLuhan, with regard to Internet governance, the model IS the message.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that one governance model is better than any other. What I am saying is that each model has its place, and the model that suits the Internet is the multi-stakeholder one. There is room for both models, and each has its role to play – let’s just make sure we put the right model in the right place.