On February 27, 2012 CIRA hosted a unique meeting on the future of the Internet in Canada. The Canadian Internet Forum (CIF) brought together leading Canadian and international Internet experts and more than 400 interested citizens. Another 100 participated in an online forum CIRA hosted leading up to this event.
While the Internet is one of the greatest drivers of positive social and economic change the world has seen, there have been few opportunities for citizens to have their say about its development. Fact is, most of us don’t even think about how it runs, or who runs it.
In my opinion, this is both unfortunate and increasingly perilous. I’m reminded of a sign I saw at one of the many SOPA protests across North America over the past few months, “It is no longer okay not to know how the Internet works.”
We are moving more and more of our lives online. The Internet has become an integral part of the economic, political and social lives of all Canadians. It is everywhere and is now part of the social and economic fabric of this nation. Unfortunately, there are people who would like to take advantage of this new found ubiquity of the Internet for criminal gains.
Through the discussions at the CIF, it became clear that Canadians are very concerned about online crime, and, in turn, governments are increasingly under pressure to deal with this. Governments are reacting in the only ways they know how, through regulation and control. We’re seeing it with legislation like the recently introduced Bill C-30, and with the forthcoming anti-spam legislation. We’re also seeing it at the global level in the actions of several organizations and nations that are attempting to extend their reach over the ‘net.
It is my opinion that a more nuanced approach is required. While governments work to police online activities and extend their reach to control the Internet, the end result may be the opposite of their intent.
Here’s the problem. Internet governance is a bit of a misnomer. The Internet is governed by the people and organizations that have a stake in its success. This governance model, called the multi-stakeholder model, works, and I would argue is the reason for the Internet’s continued egalitarian landscape and success. It is the model that has successfully put two billion people online in the past decade.
Why does it work? Because a myriad of stakeholders (i.e. engineers, marketers, coders, civil society, security experts, and so on) have an equal voice to nations or NGOs or corporations. Decisions can be made by a group of informed stakeholders at a rapid pace and relatively free of undue political interference.
Here’s another problem. The Internet is now a part of all of our lives. We are all the stakeholders who benefit when the Internet succeeds. Therefore, if we want the Internet to succeed we have a duty to get informed and get involved in its governance.
The multi-stakeholder model is not one that national governments are typically used to working with. This model works within an environment where legislation and control are often met with, skepticism and sometimes outright defiance. A multi-lateral approach – one in which decisions are made by governments in a top-down manner – would likely exclude the experts, the very people who have made, and continue to make, the Internet a success.
At the CIF, we gathered some of the brightest minds in the Internet world to discuss issues such as cyber-crime. They didn’t necessarily agree on a path to dealing with these issues – some thought the government should take the lead; others were vehemently opposed to this. What they did agree on, however, was the need for dialogue, and for that dialogue to include all affected stakeholders. In other words, a top-down approach to governing the Internet is not the path to success.
We don’t know the answers yet. The ubiquity of an entity as powerful as the Internet is still new to us, and is causing us to redefine the ways in which we communicate, make our livings and socialize. It’s time to rethink the ways in which we address the negative aspects that come with it, too.
If anything, the SOPA protests earlier this year proved that the Internet community has realized it has digital rights. However, like any democracy, rights come with responsibilities. In the digital world, these responsibilities include getting and staying informed about the issues that affect the Internet and standing up when your rights are threatened.
Get informed, Canada, and get involved. The Internet needs you.