Inside the Information Society: Mapping Internet governance

Each week, David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog looks at how to map the Internet governance landscape, which grows more complex almost by the day.

Internet governance is a lot more complicated than it used to be. We need maps to help us navigate our way.

When I first lectured on the subject, around the turn of the century, I used to compare Internet governance to the Pacific Ocean: a huge expanse of unregulated space with a few small islands of governance in it. The most important IG bodies were concerned with technical issues – ICANN and Regional Internet Registries with names and numbers; the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the WorldWideWeb Consortium (W3C) with standards and protocols.

If I wanted an analogy today, I’d choose the Himalayas or the Alps, a complex range of overlapping geographical features, some in clear view like mountain peaks, others hidden under layers of snow. Difficult to navigate because so complex, and difficult to navigate because so poorly mapped.


Why do we need maps?

Why the change? Three reasons, I think, are at the root.

First, the Internet is complex. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) defined its governance as ‘the development and application… of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.’ That’s complex for two reasons:

  • because it involves many different kinds of governance arrangements (‘principles, norms’ etc.);

  • and because it includes both the evolution and use of the Internet – which is another way to say its technical and public policy dimensions, the governance of how the Internet itself works and the governance of its relationship with every other aspect of our societies, economies and cultures.

Second, the Internet is growing more important, more commercial and more complex. When it was a small research network in the early ’90s, with a handful of services that were hard to use, it didn’t impinge much on the way we lived our lives. Now that it’s become our most important communications medium, its relationship with societies, economies and cultures matters massively to all of us, not least to governments and the citizens that elect (or don’t elect) them. Each new service makes it matter more and in more complex ways. Cybersecurity’s the most obvious of many reasons why.

Third, Internet governance – unlike most areas of governance – had multistakeholder, not governmental or multilateral, origins. WSIS said that it should be ‘multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations.’ But the power structures within this multistakeholder environment are changing. The Internet’s leading actors, now, are commercial businesses. Many critical decisions that affect the future of the Internet are taken in their boardrooms.
So what’s to map?

As a result of this growing complexity and significance, hundreds of bodies now play a role in Internet governance decision-making. Some are concerned only, or predominantly, with the Internet, others primarily with other areas of public policy with which it interacts. Some are international, but more are national. Some are multistakeholder, others multilateral or located within one stakeholder group. The remits of these bodies overlap, and many are unclear about interrelationships.

It all makes for a very complicated environment for those who want to play a part to navigate, especially if – like many governments, as well as businesses and civil society – they have limited resources. As I said above, and as many others are now saying, we need maps to help us navigate our way.
But what’s a map?
The concept’s often poorly understood. One thing’s for sure, though: a list is not a map. A list tells you what’s there: it doesn’t show you the relationships between different bodies, who participates in them, or where the gaps lie.

A map’s more complicated and more useful because it brings together several types of information and layers them in a single image. If you’re trying to find your way, a geographic map will show you the contours of the landscape (its terrain), the towns and villages (communities), and your options for travelling between them (routes) in that single image. It’s this combination of information that enables you to decide which places matter to you and how to reach them.

If we’re going to map Internet governance today, we need to put a similar range of information together. How should we go about it?


An approach to mapping Internet governance

I first worked on IG mapping six years ago for APC. More recently, building on that, I developed an approach to mapping Internet governance at a national level for the Internet Society. The principles in that approach apply just as well to IG at an international level. You can find the ISOC study here, but I’ll summarise and draw upon it now, as one way forward that is worth considering.

Like the geographical map I’ve just described, it brings together three layers of information which need to be integrated if they’re to be understood in depth.

The first layer covers the issues with which the Internet is (currently or otherwise) concerned. They can be mapped across a spectrum or continuum, from ‘narrow’ technical issues such as protocols, through hybrid issues such as cybersecurity where the interface between technical and public policy priorities is fundamental, to issues which are primarily matters of public policy but impacted by the Internet, such as child protection. These issues represent the terrain on which IG takes place.

The second layer covers the stakeholders that are concerned about those issues. Mapping these – equivalent to the communities of any geographic map – should go much deeper than the five stakeholder groupings that are used to select representatives in fora like the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG). These communities are much more complex and each needs to be disaggregated into its component groups if it’s to be properly understood:

  • governments, for example, need to be divided into different categories, not least by levels of economic and ICT development;

  • government departments within countries, and private businesses, need to be grouped according to their different interests (particularly distinguishing those on the demand side – users – from those involved in Internet supply);

  • civil society groups have very different interests and perspectives (particularly distinguishing between those primarily concerned with the Internet and those focused on other areas of public policy);

  • users of the Internet need to be seen from two distinct perspectives – as its consumers, and as citizens whose lives are altered by it.

The third layer covers the decision-making fora that affect IG – the routes through which decisions that matter are taken: not just obvious decision-making bodies like ICANN or W3C, but those hundreds of other fora that now play a part, including many whose mandates lie largely outside IG, such as the World Bank and Interpol, and powerful single-stakeholder actors like major corporations.

These three layers of information – issues, stakeholders and decision-making fora – can be superimposed one on another in much the same way that information about terrain, communities and routes is superimposed on geographic maps. It’s not straightforward, sure, but – having used it to analyse one important national Internet governance environment – I’d say it adds real depth and helps make sense of the complexity involved.
Two caveats and a conclusion

Two caveats, however, should be borne in mind.

The map of Internet governance within each country is specific to that country. It depends on its national Internet ecosystem, its institutional and power structures, its history, the roles and remits of those taking decisions. An IG map of Kenya cannot be applied to Tanzania, thought it may suggest some issues that are worth considering.

Today’s map differs from yesterday’s and will differ from tomorrow’s. The Internet’s in constant change, where issues, stakeholders and decision-making fora are concerned. Like any geographic map, an IG map needs constant updating if it’s not going to mislead.

But maps we need, at national and international levels, if we’re to navigate our way through an IG ecosystem that is more complex year on year. And maps we share across stakeholder groups might help to build the shared perspectives on which good governance relies.


Next week, I’ll look at how our understanding of digital divides has changed since the concept emerged thirty years ago.

Readers who want to follow up last week’s post on the IGF retreat should read the official report of the retreat.


David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .
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