March 2017 - Self-regulation | Internet Governance

Who Rules the Internet?

Because the Internet is not a single infrastructure, it is easy to lose track of everybody involved in Internet Governance. Yet, nothing beats the multi-stakeholder approach, according to dotmagazine's Mathias Röckel.

Internet Governance

Credit: © the-lightwriter | iStockphoto

An attempt to describe the Internet in one sentence: The Internet is a cross-national infrastructure of cables, routers, switches and servers that rely on multiple services, applications, standards and protocols that allow anyone to exchange data with anybody else, and it is impossible to say who runs or owns the Internet or even understand and agree upon everything necessary to keep it running – which doesn’t keep us from trying.

Keep us from trying? Who is “us,” exactly? It’s hard to say. Just like there is no single central Internet, but rather a variety of autonomous networks, there is no single central party governing the Internet. Instead, we have ICANN with IANA, IETF, IGF, W3C, and the ITU, to name just a few. For a longer list, visit Wikipedia, but don’t count on that list being complete.

As for eco – Association of the Internet Industry: eco actively supports and participates in a number of international committees, such as the IGF, whose last meeting took place in Mexico in December. Michael Rotert, eco’s Chairman of the Board, was there to represent the Internet industry in discussions that ranged from multi-layered IT security connections to sustainable development and human rights in the digital age. 

Multi-stakeholder approach

Conferences like these display the full diversity of Internet stakeholders and leave no doubt that fair and efficient Internet governance is not achieved by centralizing power, but rather by working on the multi-stakeholder approach. It won’t come easy, but we are making good progress. 

“The open and self-regulating multi-stakeholder approach needs constant improvement and adjustment. Stronger cooperation is already taking place at all levels. The Internet has become ubiquitous, and digitalization is advancing in all areas. For this to succeed, open discussions need to continue at all levels,” Michael Rotert stated at the Mexico conference. (Read and listen to Michael Rotert on the work of the IGF)

For more on the major players in Internet governance and the multi-stakeholder approach, see “A Quiet Global Revolution” and “The Why, How, and Who of Internet Governance

Nationalization of the Internet

With stakeholders coming from all countries in the world and different political, social and industrial backgrounds, consensus is often hard to reach. Even basic principles such as openness, transparency, and neutrality are the subject of ongoing negotiations and, as can be expected, interpreted differently in different parts of the world. Germany and other European countries are no exception. Attempts to nationalize the Internet are frequent, and these come from politics, the industry, and also Internet users.

Klaus Landefeld, eco Director of Infrastructure and Networks warns

“Irrespective of the world region, be it North America, Europe, Russia or China, national regulations and requirements are being toughened to a point where navigating the thin line of lawful operation on a global scale is becoming close to impossible for a multinational service. As difficult as it may be in the new world order of "my nation first" - it is imperative to quickly resolve these conflicts, to find a common ground for internationally acceptable rules and regulations in order to ensure the survival of cyberspace as we know it.”

Self-regulation initiatives

One very successful area of self-regulation is the Internet industry’s processes for dealing with illegal online content, through the complaints offices of the global INHOPE network, for example. 

“Self-regulation of the Internet is very important,” according to Alexandra Koch-Skiba, Head of the eco Complaints Office. “It is not only the basis of the eco Complaints Office [but even more] it is the approach of our members. Many years ago, they talked about the best way to fight illegal content, and one of the results was the founding of the eco Complaints Office, and we still stick to the self-regulatory approach. So it’s us who inform the providers, instead of governmental authorities. It is a very, very fast approach, and being fast when it comes to illegal content is one of the important things.” 

(Listen to an interview with Alexandra Koch-Skiba on the work of the eco Complaints Office and the INHOPE Network)

Another area where self-regulation has proven to be successful is in the area of security and abuse. According to Wido Potters, who established the free-to-use, open source network abuse support project AbuseIO, 

“Abuse is becoming increasingly problematic on the Internet. It consumes large amounts of resources and reduces the public trust in the online world. This negatively affects businesses worldwide, especially the Internet industry. For quite some time, Dutch Internet industry organizations have been have been warning the industry that if they do not solve the problem themselves, the politicians will solve it for them. It is likely that their solution will not benefit the industry.” 

Another recent initiative is the Healthy Domains Initiative (HDI), established by the Domain Name Association, with its recommendation of “Healthy Practice Areas for Domain Registries and Registrars”. According to Mason Cole, Vice-President of Donuts and Chair of the DNA Healthy Domains Initiative Committee 

“While HDI is designed primarily to advance the safe and beneficial evolution of the domain name system, its secondary goal is to demonstrate to Internet stakeholders the capability of industry operators to effectively self-regulate.  HDI is not under the aegis of ICANN or any other regulator — it’s an industry-led program that operates independently, guided by the organizations that have the operational experience to help keep the namespace healthy.” 

After the initial launch of the initiative at the beginning of February 2017, changes were made to the set of "Healthy Practices" based on the feedback from the domains community. (Read more about the HDI in Mason Cole's article on the subject)

Openness and Transparency

Openness and transparency are also two principles held dear by supporters of open source solutions. Vittorio Bertola of Open-Xchange believes that software-as-a-service solutions used by hosting, service providers and telecommunications should be based on open source. 

“As we make some fundamental free building blocks of the net, such as Dovecot and PowerDNS, and as we power the email, collaboration, and domain name resolution of many of the biggest ISPs around the world, we put some real effort into making our software open, secure, and free (as in free speech) as much as any company could,” says Bertola . “Email security, in particular, is a field that can only advance by bottom-up cooperation. ... If you want to implement better security methods, all companies have to support them. No ISP can do this alone, at least not if you still believe in the traditional principles of the Internet.”

(Read Vittoria Bertola's article on Internet governance)

Privacy, integrity and trust – they may be among the most important goals we should set when we try to improve Internet governance. Because after all, when we turn on our Internet devices, we don’t ask ourselves, “who rules the Internet?” What we really want to know – “Is this thing safe?”

The best way to get rid of illegal content

Illegal Internet content is not only damaging to the industry. It can also be very dangerous, especially when personal privacy is at stake. Of the many strategies suggested and tested, one sticks out as exceptionally successful: user integration combined with self-regulation.

How is it done?

1) Users encounter illegal content online, for instance, a racist statement in a forum, a disturbing image, or spam.

2) Users report that content to their respective Complaints Office, such as the eco Internet Complaints Office:

3) The Complaints Office will then examine the content and take measures such as getting in touch with the content provider or the hosting provider and the appropriate law enforcement agency. The goal is to take the content offline.

Does it work?

In the second quarter of 2016, the eco Complaints Office received reports of 175 cases of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) online, 42 % of which were hosted in Germany. 96 % of these cases were offline within one week. 

How about international cooperation?

The Internet crosses borders and so does the Complaints Office Community. More than 45 Complaints Offices from 40 countries are united under the umbrella of INHOPE – the International Association of Internet Hotlines. Members collaborate with each other via INHOPE. As a result, complaints can be pursued in the land of origin.

Find more information about Internet Governance on eco International.