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Internet governance discussions at European University Institute: Thoughts from Florence, Italy (1)

In a beautiful quiet villa in Toscana belonging to the European University Institute, during the last days of the WCIT controversies over whether or not to  regulate the Internet, a group of reputed academics working in Internet governance related  areas challenged some 20 young researchers with similar questions. What kind of regulation is applied to Internet, if any, and how is it applied? What can we expect for the future? More or less explicitly put forward, and tackled from different disciplines perspectives, these were the core background issues of the Executive Training Seminar on The Governance of the Information Society and the Regulation of the... organised by the Academy of Global Governance of the EUI Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.


How digital technologies have contributed to current complex societal changes

Professor Eric Brousseau opened the seminar and set the framework of the event by discussing how digital technologies have contributed to the current complex societal changes, changes that lead to new forms of governance and transformation of (inter)state relationships with other stakeholders. However he avoided techno-determinism. Instead he started his demonstration with the current real-world social interactions i that tend to shift from a traditional centralised system where legitimacy is given by representation (in representative democracies where citizens interests are represented in public institutions by their elected members) towards more fragmented and heterarchic systems where various stakeholders represent various interests that can be reconciled through reaching consensus. In these systems legitimacy relies on the procedural rules of the decision-making process. (A detailed analysis of this theory can be found in the contribution published in Governance, Regulations and Powers on the Internet.)


In the Internet environment, decentralised network management allows for a wide and rapid growth through interconnection (based on a common set of standards developed as self-governing technology). At the same time, it allows for access control and a cheap and easy way of deploying digital fences (including implementation of self-regulation for this controlled space). Thus the central/public/state control has been overtaken by the private enforcement capabilities. While this may seem an entirely self-governing system, it cannot disregard the presence of governments: starting with the US government’s ownership of the IP address system that the entire Internet sits on and ending with some attempts to ‘nationalise’ the Internet, state authorities remain involved in Internet governance, and try to hold on to their mission to regulate in the name of public interest. On the other hand, the decentralised and fragmented network architecture may pose some threat of monopolies since the network management entities are in the position to enforce specific regulations on the use and users of the space, potentially leading to domination of a group of powerful actors who can control the future of the network. Therefore checks and balances need to be put in place in self-regulatory systems as well.


This Internet governance conundrum was further analysed by Professor Milton Mueller who put it within the framework of networked governance characterised by multistakeholderism, transgovernmental networks and state delegation of powers to private actors (as described in Networks and States) and applied to ICANN. Professor Mueller asked participants for argued solutions and suggestions for ICANN reform in terms of legal status, role of Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and its relationship with the US (IANA contract). These revealed quite a broad diversity of opinions ranging from purely intergovernmental organisational structure to hybrid sui generis multistakeholder organisational systems, demonstrating that a consensus on the matter is still far from being reached.

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