Rousseau and Internet Governance

The US had expectations about the future of international relations when it commercialized the internet in 1995.  these turned out to be wrong.  We also had assumptions about the views and desires of non-western participants, that they would go along with the structure we had put in place.  These were also wrong.  So how do you transform an outdated mechanism to fit a new political environment?    

The biggest single change in internet politics is the recognition that there are borders and national sovereignty applies – even the US agreed to this, formally, in the UN. 

In thinking about what needs to change now that the commercial internet has reached 20 years, one big challenge is legitimacy - are the institutions that "govern the internet seen as legitimate by a global user population?

  • Social Contract.  Legitimacy requires the consent of the governed, not self-selection and, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly, national governments are more legitimate representative than civil society, but most countries agree that you need civil society involved some way

-- Since the internet now serves a global audience (rather than American or transatlantic), how does that change the composition of those who “govern?”

  • Users or ownership?  If a country has many internet users, does that mean they should have a bigger role in governance (which tilts towards countries like India) or should it be those who are actually involved in making the internet enterprise work (which tilts towards the US).  

-- Who are legitimate representatives for nations in internet governance, and how are they selected? 

  • Who selects the governors? Outside the US, people think that it's their government that represents them, not self-selected members of civil society.  Western survey data shows that if a flying saucer appeared and imposed completely fair and honest elections in China, 2/3 of the people would vote for their current government.  Self-selection won’t do it anymore.

-- What is the right venue or venues for discussion and, more importantly, for commitments?

  • Institutions.  We have four or five venues for internet governance, including ICANN.  Those connected to the UN (like the IGF) have an advantage, but can the IGF discussion lead to a commitment by states to do anything?  The UN doesn't mean only 2nd Committee or the ITU, it could be a separate body like the IMF or World Bank, specialized agencies that are part of the UN system (and largely independent of UNGA politics) but (back to point one) IMF governance is decided by share of GDP, not population size.  Fair to say an entity as complex as the internet will need more than one governing body.

You can see the dilemma - if we stick to the ideals of democratic governance and self-determination, what we have now doesn't fit the bill.