A Cartel Masquerading as Anarchy: who governs the Internet?

The Internet is the most concentrated and regulated communications system the world has ever known. Players like Google or Microsoft take a far larger revenue share of the markets within which they operate than Standard Oil, Ma Bell or IBM ever did. Meanwhile over 500 agencies and regulators in the UK alone claim powers to access traffic data or stored content: albeit almost none are capable of securing what they demands.


The reason that so many wish to maintain the illusion of uncontrolled anarchy is partly because  governments would rather engage in gesture politics than admit that they can only exercise power in co-operation with global commercial players who they cannot control.


Meanwhile global players cannot act rapidly or effectively against cross-border malpractice without breaching local laws. It is easier for all concerned to plead impotence than try to sort the issues of international co-operation between regulators and law enforcements, let alone between them and international business: especially since most of what is necessary to protect the interests of well-heeled customers can be done, with little or no publicity, under civil law, given the necessary motivation (and a US court order or two as fig-leaf).. 


Hence the importance of the Internet Governance Forum, to discuss co-operation in open sessions, with participation across the whole of society, while the power games of law enforcement, taxation and commercial advantage are discussed behind closed doors at meetings of OECD or G8.


That raises the question of whether it would be better to narrow the gulfs of  understanding and culture between the “learned”, political, commercial, legal and technical worlds or to leave well alone: because “a little learning is dangerous” and too much could be deadly.


I am currently reading Jack Gray’s “Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000”  I was particularly struck by Sun Yatsen’s addition of the traditional Chinese concepts of the examining and supervisory powers to the Western tripartite division of legislative, executive and judicial powers. But I was also struck by the way that China in the early 20th century was destroyed rather than reborne by the diversity of competing economic, social and cultural visions that “democracy” had facilitated. I doubt the West is yet ready to listen and learn from those who have been struggling with the problems of very large scale governance for several milliennia longer than the West.


Is the global Internet too important to be controlled by politicians and governments?


Would we rather trust players like Google, IBM, Microsoft, Sky/Star and Vodafone (and their national partners) to compete for our custom, (including protection from abuse under “conditions of service”), than risk agreement between the government bureaucracies of China, EU and US on the monitoring and control of how we are allowed to see and do on-line? 


But how can we ensure that such dominant commercial players do indeed continue to compete?


They might do better for their shareholders (who run most of our pension funds) by co-operating with national “champions” (like the BBC or BT in the UK) and local regulators to protect current business models against those innovations that they do not themselves plan and lead.


This autumn will see a rash of consultations and conferences that nibble round the edges of some fundamental questions. In almost every case the programmes are built around presentations by representatives (including lawyers and lobbyists) of those who can (or must) take politics seriously, even during recession – because the decisions will determine what they, and their competitors, are allowed to do when the clouds lift.


Among the most potentially important are the next “Parliament and the Internet ” conference and “UK Internet Governance Forum”, prior to the next global IGF in Hyderabad.


Part of my role is to try to secure inputs from those who cannot attend because they are struggling to survive while inventing the future.  I am also have a long-standing concern to ensure the voices of the users (business as well as consumer) are heard alongside those of their current and would-be suppliers.


In both contexts I also recommend that you look out for opportunities to partiicpate in the revival of the UK chapter of ISOC. The Internet Society (ISOC) was originally intended to be the governance group for the Internet. I was persuaded to join in 1995 because those then contributing the bulk of effort to the Internet Engineering Task Force, felt that a reformed ISOC was going to be needed if they succeeded in and the Internet came of age as a mass market medium.


The Internet has come of age – but where is the user voice?


Could/should a revived  ISOC-UK be part of that voice?


If not, where are those voices to be heard? .


Meanwhile, the current unrepresentative cacophony of well-meaning interest groups lobbying for different ways forward look more like that which failed to tackle the war lords or foreign concessions and collectively destroyed the future of China under the Guomindang.