Grasping the opportunities for one internet

Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ‘birth of the Internet’. What started as an educational tool in the 80s and became a global public resource in the 90s,  now affects approximately 4 billion people directly and billions more indirectly.  The Internet has impacted our society like no other revolution – in our economies, our societies, our cities, and in our homes. And this will only grow in the years to come – both in terms of new groups of people, and an increasing number of “things” that are connected to it.

This in turn, has reshaped the technical context and political significance of the Internet, resulting in real challenges to the safe and secure use of it.

Today, you can’t read the news without seeing a story about the “dangers” of the Internet. Brazen cyberattacks happen every day, including isolated but large-scale attacks on the Domain Name System (DNS) itself – a critical part of the Internet infrastructure, which my organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) helps coordinate. These attacks undermine trust in the Internet and the applications connected to it.

In many conversations about these issues, we hear that “the Internet” is the problem. While it is true that social media, search engines, online advertising, video streaming platforms, and numerous other applications are all accessed through a connection to the Internet, they are not the Internet. These are applications that sit on top of the Internet.

The problem is not with the Internet itself. And this is an important distinction to be kept in mind when trying to address these issues.

Governments are increasingly under pressure to protect its citizens by enacting laws and regulations that address online privacy, access, intellectual property rights, cybersecurity, and surveillance. The European General Data Protection Regulation implemented in May 2018, and the recent California Consumer Privacy Act passed on the 1st January this year are examples of the legislation being passed, and we continue to see the introduction of more policy and legislative proposals.

Although the current and proposed national and regional legislations may be based on good intentions, there is a substantial risk of unintended consequences. The foundation of the Internet is technical and complex. Legislation can therefore, unintentionally, compromise the very technical operation of the Internet. Few understand the intricacies of how it works. However, in today’s environment, where legislation and policies are being introduced, it is increasingly obvious that a better understanding of the technical aspects of this interconnected communications network is needed. Without collaboration with the technical community, legislation being introduced, even with the best of intentions, can jeopardize the stability of the Internet and render those who use it even more vulnerable.

ICANN, along with our technical partners, like RIPE NCC, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Society (ISOC), and our diverse community, work to help implement and evolve the rules that were developed some 40 years ago.

At the same time, as part of an Internet community who work together for the global public interest, we also work together to address some of the most critical issues impacting the Internet today and in the future. As the coordinating body for the DNS, ICANN’s mission is to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet’s unique identifier systems. That is why  as ICANN, we continue to stand ready to provide technical expertise to help governments ensure anyone considering new legislation or regulations have the full technical facts about the operation of the Internet and its system of unique identifiers.

One cannot underscore the importance of collaboration between governing bodies and the technical community. Any overstep could risk damaging the openness, reliability, and stability of the Internet, potentially effecting the smooth flow of data and global communications. The opportunity presenting itself here, is to renew our collective effort and the ways of cooperating, and understanding, among the different stakeholders in the Internet ecosystem, including access providers, manufacturers, content providers, and public and private sectors.

Today, technology is without borders, increasingly connecting people and products to this unique framework that is the Internet. In simple words, our lives are becoming more digitized. The constant evolution and innovation, and the inclusion of a diversity of good and bad actors, will result in more issues to address in the years to come; many of which we are not yet aware. And we cannot solve them in isolation.

With the start of a new decade, we find ourselves at a critical juncture when it comes to the future of digital global governance and security. It is our shared responsibility. It is global and local at the same time. There are billions of Internet users of all different cultures, economic levels, languages and educations levels. Much of ICANN’s work, such as helping to mitigate DNS abuse or security threats; promoting Internationalized Domains or Universal Acceptance, are intended to protect those billion users, and to create an environment that’s welcoming to the next billion users. For us, as ICANN, It is critical that we encourage participation, representation, and engagement from people all around the world, for whom access to one global Internet has much to offer.

Our collective challenge, not ICANN’s alone, is not only to ensure that the Internet continues to grow safely, and in a stable manner, but to also ensure it continues to be a useable, trusted, and safe resource in the future.

When all of us look to the future of the Internet, the choice for us is not between globality and the respect of the rule of law, or national systems.

It is how they can co-exist. Because we at ICANN firmly believe they can.

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Göran Marby is CEO and President of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).