The Complicated Geopolitical Issues Surrounding Who Controls The Internet

Feb 5, 2016

Cars, drones, refrigerators – almost everything is connected to the internet in some way, and that raises significant questions about control and governance. Who’s in charge, and who sets standards?

American University communications professor Laura DeNardis has studied these issues since the modern internet’s infancy in the 1990s. She told KGOU’s World Views countries, industry, and civil society work together in what she called “multi-stakeholder governance.”

“The administration and the coordination of the technologies that are necessary to keep the internet operational, and then the enactment of policy around that, involves hundreds of different functions,” DeNardis said. “And I would argue that some should be the sole responsibility of the private sector. In other cases, it’s the paradigmatic responsibility of the government to do certain things.”

Listen to DeNardis' 2014 appearance on The Diane Rehm Show

One of those multi-stakeholder governing agencies is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. They’re in charge of making sure the Domain Name System (DNS) and individual internet protocol (IP) addresses are unique, and that brings up sensitive geopolitical issues.

“A company like Amazon, who owns the trademark to Amazon, applied for a new top-level domain – think ‘.com’ or ‘.edu.’ But they applied for ‘.amazon’,” DeNardis said. “And the countries with the Amazonian rain forest within their borders said, ‘Well, we’re not sure that a company should be able to control that.’ It brings up lots of conflicting values between property rights and regional issues, because it’s a name space. It’s also a speech space.”

DeNardis is the author of the 2014 book The Global War for Internet Governance. She uses the word “war” symbolically, but she does say that some of the greatest battles over human rights, economic liberty, and what’s considered “freedom” are taking place on the internet.

“We don’t have a great track record on protection of data, for example, especially over the last couple of years,” DeNardis said. “On the other hand, the internet has been a phenomenal success in that it has continued to function.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Laura DeNardis, welcome to World Views.

LAURA DeNARDIS: Thank you very much.

GRILLOT: So, Laura, your work is focused primarily on internet governance and architecture, and how we've created the internet. But let's start with this notion of governance. Is the internet really something that's governable? I think many of us aren't quite certain about that. How do you control this thing that seems so uncontrollable? Tell us what you mean by internet governance, and how we can really rein in all the activities that are going on on the internet?

DeNARDIS: Well, when you access the internet, you really only see three things. You see your device, such as an iPhone. You see the content, and you see applications. But behind that, there's a massive infrastructure that spans the globe, that crosses borders. It involves undersea cables, switches, and buildings, and people, and institutions. And it is necessary to coordinate much of that in order to keep the internet operational. The issue of internet governance is an oxymoron in many cases, because the governance is so interesting because it's not just done by governments. There are institutions and private industry that manage various coordinating functions. There are very specific ones, but the way the internet is designed does require some coordination in certain areas.

GRILLOT: So when you talk about coordination, you're talking about globally, obviously. The internet is something that operates globally. So you're talking about global coordination. And it makes one think of like early days of telecommunications, for example. The telephone and the telegraph, and the postal service, and all of those kinds of things that went global and needed to be coordinated. Is this just the same kind of thing, just 100-150 years later?

DeNARDIS: There are some parallels, but there are also some differences. With the internet, there are requirements to have names and numbers. So we'll go to a website like, but that's not what computers use. They use a unique binary address called an IP address. Now, because of this requirement of global uniqueness, someone has to make sure that each one is globally unique. So they hand them out, they manage the process. And that sounds like a very technical function, but it actually brings up a lot of geopolitical struggles. For example, and this is just one example of many geopolitical problems. A company like Amazon, who owns the trademark to Amazon, applied for a new what's called a top-level domain. Think .com, .edu. But they applied for .amazon through this institution called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. And the countries with the Amazonian rain forest within their borders said, 'Well, we're not sure that a company should be able to control that.' It brings up lots of conflicting values between property rights and regional issues, because it's a name space. It's also a speech space. So that's one example. I'll mention one other area: standards setting. So I have an engineering background. I specialize in internet protocols and the politics of that, but this not at all a boring area, because these agreements that are made between companies in order to inter-operate or exchange information between their various devices, they're not only technical, they also make some political decisions, such as privacy. If you assign, for example, a unique physical identifier to something, they make decisions about accessibility for the disabled. This stuff doesn't just happen. Someone is behind the curtain designing these features into the technology. So, for example, people that are hearing impaired, or sight impaired, can have access to the internet.

GRILLOT: So, I'm glad you raised this issue of standards, because that's what comes to my mind when we start talking about the global nature of this issue. Any issue, really. There has to be a process for setting standards of behavior, standards of how we're going to operate with one another. I mean, you mentioned the political side of things. Which arenas do we use to set those standards? Where is it? Governments, I assume, come together, but you also mentioned companies. Companies are obviously heavily involved in the internet. In fact, I'm not sure that anybody thought when the internet began, it was always referred to as the "information superhighway," right? It was about education and sharing information, that it became such a commercial enterprise. But obviously businesses are heavily involved and invested. So how is that partnership as well? Not just countries working together to find the best standards, and to agree upon those standards, and the fora that we use to do that. But how is it that businesses and governments are working together to create best practices and best standards?

DeNARDIS: That is a very important question, and actually most areas of internet governance are dominated by the private sector, including standard-setting. So it's the privatization of governance. So that's one major theme throughout all the areas of internet governance, whether it's maintaining a global uniqueness for names and numbers, or whether it's determining how to interconnect private networks, Because I always tell students that no matter how we describe it or depict it in a PowerPoint slide, the internet is not actually a cloud, obviously. It involves these physical networks that come together. Those are private companies that make agreements about how to exchange information. It's the same thing with policies that are very civil liberties-oriented, such as privacy, freedom of expression, what counts as cyberbullying and how to deal with that. It's a privatized function in that companies like Google have to make decisions across many different countries with many different laws and with many different norms for what is culturally acceptable. So that function of dealing with requests from governments, and deciding which ones to comply with and which ones not to, this is a highly privatized area. And we see it where they make a lot of these decisions public in their transparency reports. So I would say that actually, the governance of the internet is highly privatized, and then there are certain areas where governments and industry and also civil society work together. It's a crazy name for it. It's called "multi-stakeholder governance." And so that is definitely touted as the way forward for internet governance - to have a balance of powers so no one entity, whether it be governments or private industry, has more control than others.

GRILLOT: I think this is an interesting concept, the privatization of governance. And I'm wondering, it raises two questions in my mind. I'm wondering is this kind of the first area in our globalized where we see this happening? Multi-stakeholder governance? That this is kind of the first area where we see this emerging? Where there's this much of a partnership and a relationship between government and business on this issue? And then it also raises issues regarding regulation versus freedom. Because obviously private enterprise is highly interested in freedom, the freedom to maneuver and manage without much regulation. But obviously governments and governance requires regulation, so balancing those two - regulation and freedom. So tell us a little bit whether you think that this is kind of the first area where we're really having to struggle with this, and that might even have an impact on how successful we'll be with it? And then this relationship between governance and freedom. Or regulation and freedom.

DeNARDIS: A lot of areas have been highly privatized in the past, including even, you could argue, environmental issues and some human rights issues. And a lot of intersections between industry and civil liberties. So I don't think that's entirely unique. But the ownership of the internet, given that it's highly privatized, that is something that is just a condition. That's just a background condition of how internet governance works. And I would say that the privatization issue, when it comes to multi-stakeholder governance, that may be a little bit new. I wrote a paper with one of the colleagues, Mark Raymond, that looks at the multi-stakeholder issue as a new form of institution. And we actually developed some other examples where this kind of approach has taken hold. But I think that it's somewhat novel, and because it's somewhat novel, no one really knows exactly what that means. I would say that a definition of multi-stakeholder governance, first of all, can't apply to every area of the internet. It's often said that internet governance is one system. And I get the question quite often, who should control the internet? Should it be the U.S. government? The United Nations? Should it be Google? Should it be ICANN, this institution I mentioned? And a question like that is often presented in discussions about the internet, it doesn't make any sense. Because it isn't just one system. So the administration and the coordination of the technologies that are necessary to keep the internet operational, and then the enactment of policy around that, involves hundreds of different functions. And I would argue that some should be the sole responsibility of the private sector. In other cases, is the paradigmatic responsibility of government to do certain things. And then there are these other areas that really do require multi-stakeholder coordination. One of those is the area of names and number administration that I mentioned.

GRILLOT: Well, the title of your book is called The Global War for Internet Governance. What do you mean by the global war? And how does that relate at all to issues regarding cybersecurity? Are those related at all? Because cybersecurity seems to be a buzzword today, making sure that our information is secure, our countries, our infrastructure is secure. What are our greatest vulnerabilities there, and what do you mean by this?

DeNARDIS: The word "war" is a symbolic word, and obviously not a literal one in this case. But it does try to capture the nature of what's happening in the world in that some of the greatest battles over human rights, over economic liberty and over what will count as freedom in the future, are taking place over the internet right now. And because we live in a world in which every sector of the economy depends on the internet. Every sector of social life depends upon the internet. The internet will soon turn 50. If you look back 50 years, let's just look back 10 years, what was happening 10 years ago? "The Facebook" was being founded at Harvard. The domain name was just activated. 10 years is a short time, but in internet years it's a long time. But in that time, we have the development of a society that cannot function without these kinds of cybernetworks that hold everything together. One of the major trends is that the internet is not only a communication network anymore. It's also a control network in that more things are connected than people. So this is often called the internet of things. Some people call it the internet of self. But we have cars, drones, Google glasses, refrigerators all connected. That raises way more contention over the stakes of who controls these various functions, and it raises considerably the stakes of cybersecurity vulnerabilities. We don't have a great track record on protection of data, for example. Especially over the last couple of years. On the other hand, the internet has been a phenomenal success in that it has continued to function over all of these years. So it still is operational, but we have examples from Target, from Home Depot, the Office of Personnel Management, there was the Sony data breach. So more attention needs to be paid to cybersecurity.

GRILLOT: Well, I wanted to capitalize on one of the things you just said about shifting from not just a communication network, but to a control network. It raises these issues in my mind of who's in charge here? Are we shaping the internet? Is the internet shaping us? Is it chicken and egg here? Which is it? Because I feel a little controlled by the internet myself in terms of what I'm able to do, or what I'm concerned about and worried about. At the same time, I place a high demand on the internet for how I want to use it, and try to shape it to serve my needs as well. What is that relationship? Where do you come down on that issue?

DeNARDIS: As with all technologies there's somewhat of a reciprocal relationship between society and the technology, in that it's not an autonomous system that just develops itself. There are people behind it that design the technologies that make decisions. And I think the reason the internet has been so successful is because a set of principles have been designed into it. These are called by The Internet Society the internet invariance, global reach, accessibility, no permanent favorites so that no one company can dominate. The ability to, you and I can start a company, and we can put something online and start a business and have it be accessible anywhere in the world. Those are values designed into the system. But it doesn't have to be that way. You have to acknowledge that there are values in order to ask the question, 'Well how could that change over time?' On the other hand the technology shapes us as well. Try taking a smartphone away from a teenager for an hour and see the results. We're very dependent socially on our technologies. I know that I am. And this changes the nature of community. It changes the nature of identity and expression. It also changes the nature of innovation. I would argue that we have always thought about communication rights or I'll call it expressive liberty separate from economic liberty. But with the internet, it no longer makes sense to separate those two things. Because in order to speak, we have to have the freedom to innovate with certain tools. This is especially the case in parts of the world that have repressive information policies, where you need to be able to develop tools to circumvent. So it complicates all kinds of relationships between us and the technology, but also between the technology and economic systems as well.

GRILLOT: Well, in the last 10 seconds I just have to ask, are you an internet optimist or pessimist? Or do you ride the fence on this? Some things you're optimistic about, some things you're pessimistic about?

DeNARDIS: I'm absolutely optimistic. But that being said, we have to engineer the future in a way that does provide internet freedom and continues the growth that we've had over the last 50 years.

GRILLOT: Alright, well, Laura, thank you so much. It's been very interesting. I appreciate you being here on World Views.

DeNARDIS: Thank you so much for having me.

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