Internet Governance: The Role of Multistakeholder Organizations

Tags: Technology Policy

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The unique characteristics of the Internet – its openness, its global interconnectedness, its decentralized nature, the interrelationships among the “layers” that comprise it – have made it remarkably resistant to traditional tools of state governance. This is both good and bad.

Because the Internet often works around and beyond political boundaries, efforts to censor Internet speech have proven difficult, as the global tumult in repressive government regimes bears witness. The same characteristics, however, can frustrate efforts by governments that want to pursue legitimate social goals, such as combatting child exploitation on the Internet, reducing the use of the Internet to promote piracy and counterfeiting, or ensuring the security of networks.

Much of the “governance” of the Internet is in fact carried out by so-called “multistakeholder (“MSH”) organizations” such as the Internet Society and the World Wide Web Consortium, among many others. Over the last two decades, these entities have largely established the norms and standards for the global Internet, but they are little known to the general public and even to most regulators and legislators. Yet despite these accomplishments, most governments do not understand the essential role of MSH organizations, making it difficult to develop an effective Internet governance strategy. Before such a strategy can be developed, the origin, role, and operation of multistakeholder organizations must be better understood, as must the limits of such organizations for “governing” an ever more complex Internet ecosystem.

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