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The internet’s both global and local.
Global …

It rests upon a global architecture, and global standards, that work best when they’re seamlessly integrated.  

Internet insiders stress the universal nature of its underpinning technologies and fear a ‘splinternet’ in which some countries choose to do things differently. 

The power of global corporations that manage data and run services favours ways of doing things that are consistent globally and resistant to national regulation.  I touched on one aspect of this, concerning data management, last week.

… and local

But that architecture’s also national and local. The internet may be the same, in some ways, everywhere, but it’s also different everywhere.

National domains (.ke, .in, .uk) matter less today than they did once, but they’re still part of the DNS (domain name system), with more significance in some countries than others.

More importantly, the character of the internet in different countries is determined by national circumstance:

  • by the communications infrastructure that’s available, and its affordability;

  • the extent of access that results, the way that it’s distributed, the resources people have to use the internet;

  • national rules of governance, both of the internet itself and of the impact of the internet;

  • and social norms, behaviours, opportunities and risks.

Mapping national internets

There’ve been numerous attempts at mapping national internet environments over the years. I’ve been involved in three myself. Some focus on relations between institutions, stakeholders and areas of governance, like work I’ve done for APC and for the Internet Society. Others are concerned with measuring access and rights parameters like international indices of online capacity and use or UNESCO’s indicators for what it terms ‘internet universality’.

These mapping exercises show complex interactions between:

  • themes and issues that vary in importance between countries, and also vary over time;

  • institutions – within the internet and wider governance – that have responsibilities for aspects of the internet and of its impact;

  • diverse stakeholders, with diverse needs, priorities, concerns – different government departments (treasuries, IT ministries and regulators, user ministries such as those in health and education); businesses that supply the internet and those that use it; international corporations and local start-ups; individual users in all their diversity.

Towards a national conversation

There was a time, perhaps, when policies and practices in internet development – local or global – could be left to insiders, but that time’s long gone now as the internet’s become so crucial to so many aspects of our lives.

Hence the need for dialogue between what the internet world has usually called ‘stakeholders’. A national conversation that covers the widest range of intersecting issues in the online ecosystem, from technical aspects of a country’s infrastructure to impacts on public trust in information, social norms and economic inequality.

In today’s internet world, none of these issues can or should be seen in isolation. Each issue affects each across the bounds of technical and public policy. The national conversation where they are concerned needs to be serious and well-informed, to consider the implications of new ways of doing things, to listen to the voices and perspectives of those who aren’t insiders to the new technologies as well as those who are.

What do we need?

Given the importance of the internet today, I’d see three things are needed for such national conversations.

First, a solid, accurate and comprehensive understanding of the national context: how the national internet fits with the rest of what’s the nation, and compares with other nations. That includes understanding of diverse experiences within the nation, and needs to raise questions rather than reinforcing insiders' assumptions. Full data, with accurate measurement of needs, priorities and trends.

Second, national conversations require effective spaces for those with different experiences and perspectives to take part, discuss, make choices and achieve consensus. The rhetoric here’s about multistakeholder engagement, but that can be too limiting; in some cases it’s proved little more inclusive than public-private partnerships, dialogue between governments and major businesses. That’s insufficient.  

And, third, a national conversation needs to involve all of society. Citizens across gender, race and class distinctions, across categories of wealth and education, ability and age. All disciplines in public policy, including economics and social sciences, not just technology and innovation. That national conversation requires communication and consultation that aren’t just meant for show but try to improve shared understanding of what the internet can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do, is and isn’t doing. 

What do we have?

We all know, though, that national conversations on the internet are not that nuanced.

The media and politicians are often poorly informed about both technology and the impact of technology, resort to assumptions based on ideologies or vested interests, and polarise discussion in false binaries.

Internet businesses pursue their business interests, the biggest of them fuelling these through lobbying campaigns as grand as any found in any other sector.

Research communities – both academic and practitioner – do valuable research and influence more serious policymakers, but often find their work simplified in media and public discourse and, where their findings aren’t expected or cross vested interests, may find themselves traduced.

Internet insiders and those affected by its impacts often have strongly different views and relatively few places in which they can explore them calmly and collectedly, respecting different perspectives and seeking new ways forward.

And so to national Internet Governance Forums

National IGFs – Internet Governance Forums/Fora (depending on your preference or otherwise for Latin) – are a small but worthwhile set of relevant initiatives.

Some form of national IGF takes place in more than half the countries of the world. They’ve emerged from the global IGF, which began in 2006 and is headed for Katowice, Poland in December (I’ll prefigure it nearer the time).

They vary greatly.  Some look mostly down, to the national internet environment. Others focus upward, identifying issues for the global meeting.  Some are dominated by vested interests, others more diverse.  Some pay most attention to technical aspects of the internet, others play into a wider field.

They’re considered to be successes of the global IGF, though also with their limitations (see below).

An example from last week

My country (the UK)’s national Forum was held last week, for the second year successively a wholly online Forum (due to COVID). I’ve served on its organising committee for a decade now, and watched it change over the years, growing more diverse and more wide-ranging. Here are four things I think among its strengths:

It’s well-informed. Britain’s regulator Ofcom undertakes extensive research into every aspect of the internet, past, present and future. Reporting that provides a knowledge base that helps keep discussions elsewhere in the Forum on solid ground. Other research, too, is carefully reported.

It’s unafraid to tackle controversial issues or address challenging issues with diverse views. Six main themes this year.  

  • Two concerning governance of the internet itself – the future of internet technology (and policies relating to that), the future of data protection in Britain (and the country’s possible divergence from Europe’s GDPR).  

  • Four concerning governance of the impact of the internet – cybercrime, gender-based violence online, ‘greening the internet’ (ahead of this year’s global climate conference) and the British government’s forthcoming ‘online safety’ legislation, which seeks to balance freedom of expression and protection against harm.

It draws its expertise more widely than most fora of the kind. Not just from internet insiders, but from experts in areas affected by the internet or responsible for implementing policy: from academia and media, from activists  and the police, from environmental specialists and data businesses.

And it is determinedly diverse, consciously seeking to reflect the complex society that is contemporary Britain.

Those factors led to some outstanding discussions at the latest Forum (which will be available online next week).  

Success and limitations

Events like this add to the quality of policymaking. They bring together figures with different experience and ideas. They share their thinking with a wider public. They emphasise the benefits of dialogue.  

But they have limits in developing that elusive bur important national conversation. Three reasons:

The issues are highly complex. Discussing them in a forum like this requires concentration and substantial background knowledge. That attracts some to participate but for others it deters.

Participation’s therefore relatively limited. Enough join to make the conversation valuable and spread word of what’s been said within their wider circles. But this is always going to be a small group, not a national, conversation.

And outreach is a challenge. The UK IGF publishes its outcomes online, alongside videos of what’s been said and done. But it isn’t going to be high on news agendas. Outreach will mostly be with internet insiders (and perhaps their students), not with readers of the mainstream press.  

The challenge for national IGFs

National IGFs are a success story within the  context of the IGF, in short, but that success is limited. The challenge for them - and for similar attempts to build a better understanding of the internet – is to expand from debate within the internet community:

  • to debate with a wider range of policy professionals concerned with things beyond the internet; and

  • to informed (I stress 'informed') debate within the wider public.

A more national conversation on these lines would lead to better policy decisions (and to fewer bad ones).  

How to go about it, though, is challenging. Governments like to make their own decisions and are reluctant to reconsidrer them – to consult. therefore, rather than debate.  Internet businesses are concerned with business interests.  Most mainstream media and many politicians prefer to simplify than to address complexity. And users are more interested in using the internet than they are in talking of it or analysing what they do with it.

Internet policymaking at national level requires three things:

  • a solid, accurate and comprehensive understanding of the national context;

  • effective spaces for those with different experiences and perspectives to achieve consensus;

  • and better communication with the wider public.  

Perhaps the need for these, and ways to build the necessary conversation, should themselves be agenda items for next year’s round of IGFs.

Image: UK IGF

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.