The Internet is a globally shared resource with ever-increasing importance to and influence on society. Today, more than 3.9 billion people use the Internet for research, entertainment and most importantly, to stay connected to each other. It has brought the world together in ways that were unimaginable even 30 years ago. At the same time, there are very real threats that could limit the global, unified nature of the Internet and to protect it, the Internet community and governments must work together to make it safe and stable for all, regardless of geography or agenda.
At its most basic, the Internet is a system of interconnected, autonomous computer networks, or a network of networks. There is no single owner or central governing body of the Internet; it is maintained by a collection of organizations and people working together to set rules, standards and policies, while providing technical support to ensure that the world can be interconnected through this one, single global system.
The organization I work for, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) plays a specific, technical role, acting in the global public interest as the trusted steward of the Internet’s unique identifier systems. We coordinate parts of the Domain Name System (DNS), which translates computer hostnames into IP addresses, as well as the Internet Protocol addressing system used to route Internet traffic. In layman’s terms, we are an important part of the system that helps people connect to each other online. Every time you send a friend an email, video chat with family, book plane tickets, or shop online, you touch ICANN in one way or another. Our mission is to ensure that the Internet remains singular, unified, and interoperable as the next billion Internet users come online.
Recently, however, the Internet has started to get a bad reputation. Fake news, hacks, vulnerabilities, abuse, trafficking and email scams are prevalent all around the world. In a lot of conversations about these issues we hear that “the Internet” is the problem. While it is true that social media, search engines, online advertising and video streaming platforms are all accessed through a connection to the Internet, they are not the Internet. These are applications that ride on top of the Internet. The problem is not with the Internet itself.
There has been much discussion within governments and intergovernmental forums about regulating the Internet, as these groups attempt to navigate the global nature of the Internet while protecting its citizens. In these conversations, some think about the DNS as if it is a platform, similar to where you check your email or post pictures. Some governments are considering ways to leverage the DNS to curtail certain behaviors. If that were to happen, those governments could inadvertently break the Internet. For example, impairing the function of the DNS through national regulation could have unforeseen consequences, including barring users’ access to part or all of the Internet, and businesses could find themselves shut out of global markets as a result of national regulation of the DNS.
The DNS is not a platform. It enables users to navigate the Internet and easily reach their preferred platforms (applications, content and services) that ride on top of the Internet.
Since its beginning, the Internet has been the product of ground-up, community innovation focused on the greater good. I call it the world’s greatest peace project. In many ways, that bottom-up community innovation is what has made it so successful and impactful.
It is time for the technical community, which works to ensure the operability of the Internet, to work more closely with governments around the world as they tackle issues relating to the Internet. Remember, no one has ever done the Internet before; it is still very young, and no one person, country, company, or organization controls the Internet. Governments have a duty to protect their citizenry, but when they tackle global, never-before-addressed challenges like the Internet, they must embrace technical expertise more than they have up to this point to ensure that they do not adopt policies that inadvertently affect the technical operations of the Internet. The best, most likely way to preserve the safety, security and interoperability of the Internet is for the Internet community and governments to work together in the tradition of the Internet, through collaboration without personal or national agenda.
ICANN is a technical organization, and our remit does not extend outside of that technical role. It is our responsibility and desire to lend our technical expertise to help governments ensure that new policies are written with a full understanding of the consequences that they may have for the future of the Internet.
While Internet governance – unregulated, bottom-up and without geographic borders – may not appear similar to how countries are governed, there are similarities. We have an obligation to do what’s best for current and future Internet uses around the world. We want to ensure a safe, stable and secure Internet. Collectively, we must all set aside reliance on what’s worked in the past to ensure these goals. This is an area where the technical communities, the private sector, nonprofits and government must share information, ideas and history to educate each other on goals and approaches, and brainstorm solutions together. We are in uncharted territory and it is high time we collaborate to protect the good that has come out of the Internet – global community, economic opportunities regardless of location and human connection.