Internet Governance: The New Frontier of Global InstitutionsMathiason

Mathiason, John
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Beatty, Mark

John Mathiason
Internet Governance: The New Frontier of Global Institutions
Abingdon, UK and New York: Routledge, 2009, ISBN: 978-81-415-77403-1, 178 pp.

Few would argue that the rise of the Internet has been one of the most transformational influences on human society in modern times. Because of its borderless nature, traditional roles of nation-states in government regulation and protection of national interests are significantly challenged. Therefore governance of a medium so ubiquitous is a fascinating topic with which to examine international regime theory and how so many stakeholders (from the private sector and civil society to NGOs, governments, and UN organisations) have a vested interest in getting it right. This book is probably one of the most thorough historical accounts of Internet governance available today, and is essential reading for any technical practitioner of Internet technology or policy maker in the field of Internet oversight. More importantly, the book accurately tracks how the governance mechanisms have gained increasing sophistication in direct proportion with the increasing sophistication of the medium itself.

The author defines governance as 'steering', not 'driving', and roots the initial scope of Internet governance in communications theory, whereby communication consists of a sender, a message, a channel, a receiver, and a feedback mechanism. As a result, the early days of Internet governance were focused on technical issues, but inevitably progressed towards content, such as intellectual property and threats to information integrity and moral values. However, the book steers clear of ethical arguments about the value of the Internet, its impact on society, and therefore the proper role of governance in the value chain. Nor does it draw lessons about effective and ineffective governance mechanisms.

Most early attempts at content regulation were futile, mainly owing to the intriguing fact that the complexity of Internet governance is due to its 'borderless' nature, wherein traditional mechanisms for governance break down. In copyright law, for example, solutions to international trade disputes, such as use of the 'Budweiser' label, used to be settled by agreeing not to advertise America's version in Czechoslovakia and vice versa, but now such remedies are made obsolete by the Internet.

Therefore, in the beginning, governance was focused on three functions: technical specifications; resource allocation; and public policy (enforcement and dispute resolution). The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which began life in 1932 and became a UN agency after World War II, was the obvious original home for Internet governance, because of its mandate to develop international standards for communications, such as frequency-bandwidth spectrums, which are also 'borderless' in nature. However, the Internet did not became popular until it became a robust medium for exchanging information. Tim Berners-Lee founded the mechanism to organise vast amounts of information on the World Wide Web, consisting of client server architecture with a browser and editor (Hyper-Text Markup Language, HTML). As the content of the Internet increased exponentially across borders, a traditional mechanism of nation-state authority was undermined, with the loss of government protection through physical borders. As such, the value systems and cultures of countries became increasingly challenged.

While governments needed some forum for discussions and consensus, there was an interesting development, perhaps consistent with regime theory, whereby there was also an ever-increasing movement to counter any form of censorship. For example, John Perry Barlow, songwriter for the Grateful Dead, and Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Corporation, fought efforts to control the new medium. They challenged governments who tried to prosecute owners of servers that stored illegal content without their knowledge, and they established the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This form of public activism led to global initiatives such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the UN in 1966, which entered force in 1979, becoming a critical centrepiece of Internet governance. By 2007, 160 member states were signatories to the covenant, which ensured freedom of expression, with two exceptions: protection of national security; and respect for the rights and reputation of others.

The US government's belief in the Internet's global medium, and its belief that its technological management should fully reflect the global diversity of Internet users, has been a tremendous influence on the governance movement. As such, this is one of the few points at which John Mathiason addresses diversity, but does not elaborate. While he gives an excellent historical account, he makes no moral arguments with regard to the Internet's impact on society and how it might change the emphasis of governance for the greater good, whether as a tool for international development, or a mechanism for breaking down class barriers, or a conduit for crossing the culture divide at the grassroots level, or by means of its inevitable influence on international relations and improved economic well-being through the flow of knowledge and information. All of these have an enormous impact on the future direction of Internet governance, but are generally ignored. The author remains content to stay clear of these value assessments, an omission which may have been deliberate but unfortunately robs the reader of a lively debate on matters of great interest to many scholars, activists, and policy makers. It would have made the book perhaps more accessible to a larger audience.

Therefore the arguments that the author presents are more subtle and not particularly strongly argued from either side. For example, he examines regime theory, but does not frame the argument clearly enough to illustrate how the historic events of Internet governance prove his theory. For example, his chapter on ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) does not address governance as much as corporate culture, and although it speaks of the many stakeholders of government, the private sector, and Internet users, it does not address its effectiveness as a governance mechanism. The author steers clear of making any assessments or evaluations with regard to which mechanisms work and which do not in this evolving governance framework.

Despite those observations, the book is the most detailed, accurate, and complete account of Internet governance available on the market. It is logically and clearly written, leaving the reader with a strong foundation of the principles of Internet governance.

There is no doubt that the Internet needs more sophisticated governance, because intellectual property, freedom of expression, and use by criminals and terrorists all require regulation that goes beyond technical standards. For example, there is quite an industry of individuals who register hundreds of names with Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI) in the hope that people will buy the names from them at a hefty price. However, when Madonna sued just such an individual for use of the name '', she won on the basis that she had greater claim on the name. Downloading of music and movies has also been a source of copyright disputes for some time. Peer-to-peer sharing of music, achieved by distributing code and content over many countries, many of which do not have treaties with the USA, has made it virtually impossible to bring copyright violations to court in any one country.

Another important UN declaration was dated 2000, when the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted a declaration on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for development which led to its inclusion in the UN's Millennium Development Goals, whereby the public and private sectors would collaborate to bring the benefits of new technology to the developing world. The UN ICT Task Force, created as a result of this ECOSOC declaration, involved governments, the private sector, and civil society. They met in March 2004 to discuss many issues, one of which was the problem that Internet governance does not have a natural home for all the issues involved. International agreements get bogged down in process rather than addressing broader issues of principle, such as the need for a framework like that for climate change.

In the end, success will depend on whether a multi-stakeholder model can govern borderless issues when state sovereignty does not provide the solution, and civil society will have to play a vital role in mobilising public opinion, the most powerful of empowering mechanisms. This book is a vital primer for anyone interested in Internet governance and seeking to understand in some depth all the mechanisms and stakeholders involved in the evolving world of Internet governance. It provides an excellent basis for further discussion of the effectiveness of various mechanisms, given the often conflicting interests of the stakeholders and the moral and cultural impact of the medium itself.