Adapted from CEO Rosemary Sinclair AM’s remarks at the April 2021 auDA member events
auDA’s domestic agenda administering the .au domain keeps our team running at a fast pace but, as set out in our Terms of Endorsement from the Australian Government, we also have an important role to play in Internet governance and policy development both in Australia and abroad.
What is Internet Governance?
Internet governance can be defined as the rules, policies, standards and practices that coordinate and shape global cyberspace.
Unlike the postal system or telecommunications, management of the global Internet is not part of the government-to-government United Nations (UN) system. Instead, the Internet is governed via a multi-stakeholder approach.
The multi-stakeholder approach
The multi-stakeholder approach sees governments, industry, the technical community and civil society all participate in decisions about the future of the Internet, recognising that all stakeholders have a valuable contribution to make.
While the approach is by no means perfect, it remains a proven model for responding to the complex and dynamic policy and technical challenges that the Internet has presented, such as security concerns, consumer protection and managing cross-border data flows.
The multi-stakeholder bodies responsible for decisions about the Internet operate largely by consensus, with ideas and proposals debated on their merits. This leads to outcomes that have considered a full range of perspectives and have broad support.
auDA is a strong supporter of the multi-stakeholder approach, as is the Australian Government and many Australian technical community and civil society stakeholders.
Open, free and secure
Multi-stakeholder arrangements are critical to underpinning a open, free and secure Internet, and the social and economic benefits this brings.
The terms open, free and secure were defined in the Australian Government’s inaugural International Cyber Engagement Strategy released in 2017, which has been followed by the recent launch of its 2021 strategy. auDA has adopted these definitions.
- An open Internet means an Internet that is globally interoperable and accessible to all, with a free flow of information in order to support digital inclusion, collaboration and innovation.
- A free Internet does not mean it is cost-free or that there are no rules. It means people are not burdened by undue restrictions and their rights are protected online as they are offline, enabling cyberspace to positively influence economic, social and cultural development.
- A secure Internet is one that is reliable, resilient and fosters trust so Internet users can engage confidently when they are online, allowing people, businesses and governments to realise the opportunities and minimise the risks of the digital age.
A multi-stakeholder future is not guaranteed
As the strategic importance of cyberspace has increased, so too has competition about its future management, which means an ongoing multi-stakeholder approach is not guaranteed.
Some governments prefer a governance framework controlled by governments, either through the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) or another UN body. A number of governments have expressed a preference for a one-stop-government-shop for solving Internet-related problems.
The move away from a global Internet with shared governance encompassing end users, experts and industry towards a fragmented Internet with only government at the table presents significant risk for Internet users.
It is fair to say that even among some governments that are broadly supportive of the multi-stakeholder approach, there is a view that the current governance model falls too heavily in favour of large industry stakeholders at the expense of Internet users.
This view has been gaining support over a number of years particularly as issues such as the spread of online misinformation, privacy and corporate misuse of personal data have become concerns for both governments and citizens.
Increasingly the issue of “digital sovereignty” is raised as governments grapple with changing community expectations and how best to make their nationally relevant rules apply to a global infrastructure.
There is not a universally agreed definition of digital sovereignty and it can mean different things to different people.
In her speech at the 2019 Internet Governance Forum in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that for her it means “the ability to shape the digital transformation as an individual, as well as a society.” Her view is “...even in the digital world, technical innovation has to serve [people] – and not the other way round”.
This idea of technical innovation serving the people also appears in recent European regulatory activity, such as the European Commission’s Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, which aim to create a safer digital space where the rights of users are protected, and there’s greater transparency and a clear accountability framework for online platforms.
Closer to home, we might also see the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) ongoing work into the power of digital platforms as an attempt to ensure technology serves the people.
In addition to increased regulation of online activities, issues relating to the underlying technical operation of the Internet are creeping into the policy and geopolitical space. For example, some countries are:
- Considering options that give them more control over Internet infrastructure such as new laws to control data traffic and restrict access to the global Internet (effectively creating a national rather than global Internet)
- Pushing for alternatives to the existing Internet protocols and standards setting processes that would effectively amount to a reinvention of the Internet’s core architecture.
Multi-stakeholder processes will need to evolve if they are to be able to meet future challenges. Without a concerted effort to make them more effective, it is likely that more and more governments will try to solve their problems via national regulation or multilateral government-to-government treaties. This has the potential to impede the pace of innovation through the Internet that has been so valuable to economies and societies.
Regulation and the multi-stakeholder approach
The trend towards increased national regulation does not mean that continuing to support the multi-stakeholder approach is pointless. On the contrary, it makes multi-stakeholder policy processes more important than ever.
If we don’t come up with global solutions to the problems associated with a global Internet, there is a risk we could end up with various sets of national laws that conflict with each other, inhibiting the open, free and globally interoperable nature of the Internet and constraining the social and economic benefits we have come to rely on.
Better cross border coordination between industry and policymakers could mitigate some of those risks. As French President Emmanuel Macron said at the 2018 Internet Governance Forum, we need to “learn to regulate together, on the basis that all Internet players … are co-guarantors of this common interest – and that should drive us to work in cooperation”.
auDA is endorsed by the Australian Government to represent Australia’s interests nationally and internationally, and as the operator of a trusted domain, we have an important role to play in upholding the multi-stakeholder approach and positively influencing policy discussions.
We are committed to cooperating with stakeholders both here in Australia and overseas to increase the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder processes in securing better outcomes for Internet users, and to being a “co-guarantor” of the common interest so that the Internet can continue to support our social and economic development long into the future.
Multi-stakeholder arrangements underpin the open, free and secure nature of the Internet and the benefits that brings to Internet users through economic, social and cultural development, which is why we at auDA believe multi-stakeholder governance should be strongly championed by all.