The way the Internet is governed is of strategic importance to modern society. Yet current Internet governance (IG) is not robust enough to address the Internet’s critical relevance. The revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the deep reach of spy agencies online created a major earthquake in digital politics, showing the limitations of the existing Internet governance institutions in dealing with major economic and geopolitical tensions. Many governments, international organizations, think tanks and experts, have started a search for a new IG formula, moving the issue from the realm of engineers and geeks into the premier league of global politics. The main challenge is how to reconcile the tension between current IG, led by nongovernmental players, and increasing demands for a stronger role for governments.
The Evolution of Internet Governance
The current debate cannot be understood outside the broader historical context of the Internet’s development. Thirty years ago, engineers, academics and geeks, based mainly at U.S. universities, started managing the Internet through the principle of “running code and rough consensus.” This functional and inclusive approach allowed the Internet to develop incrementally as a unique, collaborative endeavor. The U.S. government played the role of “distant guardian”—close enough to support research on the Internet, mainly financially, but far enough away not to interfere in the how the Internet was governed.