Interview: Dame Wendy Hall on Global Commission on Internet Governance

We speak to UK IT's representative on the new Global Commission on Internet Governance and ask what she hopes it will achieve

Last week saw the launch of the Global Commission on Internet Governance at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Created by The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), the commission aims to raise the debate on how to keep the internet free and open in a time of increasing threats.

It will be chaired by Sweden's former prime minister and current minister of foreign affairs, Carl Bildt, and include 25 members from various industries, as well as academics, and policy and government specialists.

One member will be the UK’s own Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton.

Speaking exclusively to Computer Weekly, she admitted the commission was only in its early stages and the process of how it will work was yet to be determined.

“I said yes to joining the Commission as it is an important time for the internet and really timely following Edward Snowden’s revelations and the NSA,” said Hall. “It has brought up many issues around privacy and digital rights, and potentially this commission could be a real crossroads.”

There are already a number of committees, panels and international organsations talking about internet governance, but Hall said the appointment of Bildt as chair attracted her to this one.

“He is a real player in the field and he will be able to bring together other key players from across the world to make this a truly global commission,” she said. “Also Chatham House and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) are very well known and very well respected institutions with a reputation for independence.”

But what goals did Hall think the commission had?

“We have to take an international approach but the key word is governance,” she said. “The internet is like the Wild West. There are some controlled spaces and the rest of it is utter anarchy. But it is too important to our lives to ignore and we must look at it at an international level.”

“The fact is we need to understand what we can expect when it comes to companies and indeed governments accessing our data. Also, if you look at places like China and the way they are cracking down on things such as Weibo – the country’s version of Twitter – what they are doing breaks the whole ethos of the internet and the web, which were set up to provide freedom of information. The founders of the internet didn’t set it up for governments to gather data on us – that was never the intention, and we must explore this.”

The commission is set to run for two years. Any longer and Hall thinks it would miss the boat on the issues at hand.

The fact is we need to understand what we can expect when it comes to companies and indeed governments accessing our data

Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science, University of Southampton

“We have to get up and running very quickly because the internet and the issues around it change daily,” she said. “Anything longer than two years would have been too long and there is no point in taking five years to do this as by then it is too late.”

“I am sure there will be interim reports and most importantly we will work on linking other organisations; movers and shakers like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners Lee, who are advocates of freedom and are already involved in a number of groups to talk about these issues. We all need to communicate with each other.”

But, as Hall pointed out, there are already other groups trying to address these issues and, with some countries cracking down on internet freedoms heavier than ever before, does she think the goals can be achieved?

“The commission launched in Davos at the World Economic Forum,” she said. “This is a place where nothing specific comes out of it but all of the world leaders go and what they discuss makes an impact. I hope through things like the WEF we will have an impact too.”

Hall concluded: “Internet governance is a really serious issue. There is no guarantee the commission will get it right and yes, I am skeptical of what it will achieve. But, if you don’t try at an international level, you have already failed.”

More information on the commission and a full list of its members can be found here.

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