March 2017 - Self-regulation | Internet Governance | Encryption | Cyber Security

Bringing Order to the Digital Wild West from the Bottom Up

The strongest argument in favor of bottom-up, multi-stakeholder governance is that it actually works. Vittorio Bertola from Open-Xchange explores why self-regulation of the Internet is better than the alternatives

Email Encryption

Credit: © ISerg | istockphoto.com

When the Internet first became a mass affair, a little more than twenty years ago, all of a sudden the technical, netiquette-prone crowd of Internet pioneers found itself swamped by all sorts of newbies that seemed unable to behave. People from those times will remember that September 1993 never really ended; soon, having spam in the inbox became a normal fact of life, and the beautiful country of Nigeria suddenly filled up with people looking for strangers that would accept some free money.

As spam, fraud, flames, and cyberbullying became more common, people started to complain about the “digital Wild West” where no law seemed to exist. Added to this, the very idea that people could run a telecommunications network without the need for governmental licenses and centralized vetting, and could freely add new content and new services to it, raised several eyebrows in many capitals, and also in several headquarters of companies that – all of a sudden – found themselves obsolete. When, in 1999, an 18-year-old college student released a little piece of software that quickly destroyed the music industry, the loud cry went up: we need Internet Governance!

Initially, the old Internet folks did not take it seriously. As early as 1996, John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence made it clear that the Internet was considered to be out of the reach of the world’s governments. That, however, was just so wrong! In the following years, it became clear that governments had the opportunity to regulate, and even disrupt, the Internet. In many countries, servers were seized, dissidents were arrested, free software was legally attacked, users were intercepted, digital rights were taken away; though several good laws were also passed, including those protecting our privacy.

However, at the same time, the industry, the users, the developers, the leaders managed to explain to the world that the Internet was one of the best instruments for change, progress, and growth that mankind has ever invented. While some people and some governments really thought that the Internet should work like an updated telegraph or television network, with strict rules for everything and someone giving orders to everyone else, most were convinced that freedom of innovation and unfiltered communication are a boon to everyone (except, maybe, monopolists and dictators).

Starting from the “rough consensus and running code” principles of the technical working groups, the culture of “multistakeholderism” emerged; the idea that the Internet, as far as possible, should not be governed by hard law, but by soft law, by dialogue and cooperative action between public and private actors, including governments, businesses, civil society, and the technical and academic communities. And even if the early experiments at ICANN did not always go well, even though sometimes no hard law meant that private interests took control of some parts of the net, even though new governance issues arose every time the old ones were eventually sorted out, the Internet is still going strong after all this time.

The strongest argument in favor of bottom-up, multi-stakeholder governance is that it actually works; it exploits the networked intelligence of many parties to come up with solutions that address issues effectively. This also implies an important warning: if the Internet’s self-governance does not work, sooner or later the governments will step in and will force hard rule on everyone; and usually —as this rule will not have been discussed with everyone and will be subject to the struggle for easy popular (populist) consensus that is typical of today’s politics — this rule will be worse than it should be, and sometimes it’s really bad.

This is why all sane and intelligent netizens, be they individuals, companies or other types of organizations, should be willing to put some effort into addressing open governance issues on the Internet – even the ones that do not directly and immediately affect the bottom line of their budgets. In the long term, a self-governed open Internet is going to be better for everyone, including those who make a living out of it.

This is also why, at Open-Xchange, we do not just state our belief in an open Internet, but we try to put our energies where our mouth is. 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.

Moreover, we also sponsor governance-oriented community projects – and we would like to do more of them! The Trusted Email Services (TES) project is a good example of this approach. In the last year, we toured several countries organizing roundtables with the biggest hosters and ISPs, providing a technical brief on current email security threats and technologies, and encouraging participants to discuss and agree on common action.

Email security, in particular, is a field that can only advance by bottom-up cooperation. Whenever you write an email to someone else, that message has to be transmitted from your ISP to the recipient’s one, thus involving at least two different companies, possibly more. 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. If, instead, you believe that a single company in Silicon Valley should provide email and online identity services for all of the seven billion people in the world, then it is another story; but I would not want to live with an Internet like that.

If you tell someone that it is very likely that all his email messages are being transmitted in clear test, or under weak, easily breakable encryption, he will be surprised and scared. However, that is exactly how it is today; and that is also a nice selling point for those who would like to replace the open, cooperative email architecture with private messaging systems, capturing users in their walled gardens. This is the reason why we invest our money in organizing the TES meetings, even if they are not bringing us any revenue.

If you are interested in our project, please take a look at www.tesmail.org and feel free to contact us – we could even work together to organize a meeting. However, in any case, we would love it if other people would do the same in other fields, trying to advance security, user-friendliness, privacy, and innovation for everyone, and ensuring that those who want to turn the Internet into a walled garden, be they governments or companies, will never have any compelling grounds to argue that the Internet’s governance traditions no longer work.


Please note: The opinions expressed in Industry Insights published by dotmagazine are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the publisher, eco – Association of the Internet Industry.