This is what the people who control the Internet are worried about

Yesterday, in a large Romanesque ballroom on Manhattan’s Amsterdam Avenue, the people who make the big decisions relating to the underlying technology of what we call the “Internet” sat discussing the future.

There’s a huge power shift happening in this world, away from US control and toward a more international approach. Most of the world-leading experts in this field were OK with this.

But at least one Internet pioneer, Vint Cerf, who now works for Google, worried that this could break the Internet into warring fiefdoms that didn’t work well together.

The event was held last Thursday at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and Conference on Internet Governance and Cyber-Security invited some of the best-known internet scholars and policy-makers to discuss the technical and meaty topic known as “Internet Governance.”

Looming in the background was last year’s announcement that the US government agency the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) would relinquish its oversight over the global internet naming authority — the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

While this issue isn’t making the front pages, it is a huge shift in power for the bureaucracies keeping the internet afloat. ICANN is the private nonprofit organisation that oversees how domains are named and assigned. Up until now, the US has had formal oversight.

Fadi chehade torontoWikimediaFadi Chehadé

Despite this shakeup, Fadi Chehadé — the president and CEO of ICANN — assured the room that everything was ok. “The logical infrastructure of the internet is safe, resilient, and well-governed,” he said. “Most of the world now agrees on that.”

Sitting in the same row with Chehadé was former ICANN chair Paul Twomey, along with the president and CEO of the Internet Society, Kathryn Brown, and Beth Noveck, who runs New York University’s GovLab.

With the upcoming NTIA transition, they said, officials are scrambling to figure out how how every country with a stake in the internet will get its voice heard. The term “multi-stakeholder internet governance'”was the key buzzword, referring to a process of policy making that attempts to include all involved parties using a consensus-based model.

While this sounds like a logical way for governing technology used by the whole world, not everyone is thrilled.

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf said during his opening remarks that a multi-stakeholder model could lead to some tension, and perhaps fragmentation of the internet.

For example, one country’s laws may not coincide with other perceptions of how online content should be disseminated. This could lead to localised data storage and perhaps even halt cross-border data flow. Germany is a great example of a country taking measures to keep its data within its borders. To Cerf, this is a frightening prospect.

Brown, on the other hand, believes that the multi-stakeholder model is just what is needed. “We’re not looking for global agreement,” the Internet Society president said. “We’re looking for agreements; we’re looking for consensus where it needs to happen.” This model is a way to reach decisions “that are sustainable, that are trusted, that are transparent,” she added.

Next goal: Improving the integrity of information online

Chehadé believes the next hurdle for the global internet community doesn’t relate the underlying infrastructure of the internet. Instead, he thinks it’s time to focus on “what happens on the internet.”

He called this “internet integrity.”

He went on, “When I see something on the internet written about me … How do you know it is a high integrity item? How do you know this is the truth?” Chehadé believes that the next issue to be tackled is not how the internet works (which is the infrastructure that ICANN has been overseeing for decades), but how to create a better way to ensure and protect the content disseminated on the internet.

Even with this seeming gargantuan project, the attendees seemed pleased with future prospects. In years past there were questions about how associations like ICANN can make proper internet decisions that relate to the global user base. That’s no longer the case.

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