Emily Taylor is the CEO and Founder of the DNS Research Federation, a not-for-profit that provides technical and policy research and insights to support the domain name system (DNS). She is also the CEO of cyber security and digital policy consultancy, Oxford Information Labs and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House. We sat down with Emily at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Kyoto, Japan in October 2023. Read our conversation below.
1. You've built a successful career in the internet governance sector. How did you get involved in internet governance?
I started my career as an actor. I did that for a couple of years but it was long enough for me to understand that it wasn't the right career for me so got a law degree then qualified as an intellectual property litigator in London.
My expertise was in trademarks and copyright, but having a young family and being a full-time lawyer in the city was not conducive to the life I wanted. My husband, Lucien, and I moved to Oxford and I got a job with a commercial firm and one of their clients was a new startup that nobody understood, called Nominet, which operated a thing called the .uk Top Level Domain.
It was completely new to me but I was helping manage disputes related to trade marks and domain names. After a year, I moved in-house as Nominet’s first legal counsel where I developed its dispute resolution service, similar to auDA’s .au Dispute Resolution Policy (auDRP).
That role eventually moved me into the internet governance arena. I recall Markus Kummer – who at that time was leading the Secretariat for the Working Group on Internet Governance and went on to become Executive Coordinator of the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) – came to a CENTR meeting in 2004 and told us the United Nations was talking about how domain names are managed and encouraged us to get involved. So I went along to preparatory meetings in Geneva and then attended the conclusion of the first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, 2005. That first WSIS was an introduction for me to how controversial some aspects of the technical management of the internet could be.
The WSIS process led to the establishment of the IGF and the technical community played an important role in supporting multi-stakeholder internet governance conversations. Rather than leaving internet governance to the multilateral system, we knew people like us who were actually managing the DNS needed to be involved. This continues to be an important conversation today as we head into the 20-year anniversary of the WSIS process.
I was on the first IGF MAG and served from 2006 to 2012. The MAG members had a strong sense of community and commitment to the success of IGF. We were even moving chairs around for the main sessions at the first meeting in Athens. It's incredible to see how the IGF has developed from those early days, with about 600 people at the first IGF in Athens in 2006, to now around 8,000 here in Kyoto.
2. You’re currently CEO of the DNS Research Federation. Why did you establish the Federation and what's its mission?
Domain names run through almost everything that happens online. It’s really important for policymakers to understand what the impact policy ideas might have on the DNS, and what the knock-on effects within the complex internet ecosystem might be. It’s really important for policymakers to understand what impact policy ideas might have on the DNS, and what the knock-on effects within the complex internet ecosystem might be.
From my work with think tanks such as Chatham House and at universities, it became evident that leading academic courses have almost forgotten about this space. People aren’t teaching social science and international relations students about the domain name system or about internet standards anymore. Internet governance and technical internet standards are essential for the effective operation of the internet and to support how people experience technology, but hardly anybody outside of these relatively small sectors knows they exist. It’s important that current and future policy makers understand the internet’s technical underpinnings.
So our team at Oxford Information Labs set up and is incubating the DNS Research Federation to stimulate academic research, provide access to data and engagement in tech standards. We support researchers to do original studies so we can enable informed policy discussions with data and evidence-based policy research.
3. At the IGF, the DNS Research Federation released a paper on the internet in 20 years’ time and avoiding fragmentation. Why is avoiding fragmentation so important?
Like any network, or even any family, the temptation to assert your independence can be great. You're always battling with conflicting forces of staying together versus being apart. It's like the saying, “if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”
From our research, we see several ways internet fragmentation could happen. It could happen accidentally, which would be the greatest tragedy. That could result from us being complacent and losing focus on maintaining consistent global frameworks.
Another way is through different laws in various territories. We are seeing more laws aimed at keeping data localised – so called data sovereignty. There can be good reasons for that, but there can also be harmful consequences and we can end up with conflicting laws and obligations for people. We might also start to see regulatory arbitrage, where people will avoid having their data stored in or passing through certain territories.
A third area is related to technical standards. We talk about the importance of openness, transparency and interoperability – those are things that have kept the internet together. We are seeing increased geopolitical activity within technical standards bodies, and proposals from some authoritarian countries that would re-architect the internet’s fundamental components such as naming and addressing, and could lead to a loss of interoperability. Likewise, while there is excitement about the Web3 movement, alternative naming systems like so-called blockchain domains have risks of fragmenting the internet, as well as posing severe governance gaps.
I grew up without the internet, so I remember what it was like without it. It's easy in the policy environment to get caught up in the challenges, and that’s ok as our work is about seeking to address those challenges. At the same time, the internet is an incredible force for good and there is huge utility in being connected to a global internet.
4. You’ve been involved in reinvigorating the Dynamic Coalition on DNS Issues at this year’s IGF. Can you tell us what dynamic coalitions are and what are you hoping that the Dynamic Coalition on DNS Issues will achieve?
Dynamic coalitions have been around since quite early in the IGF. The IGF is a big annual event, but for it to really make an impact, there needs to be intersessional work. There are lots of regional and national IGFs, which are tremendously vibrant, but the dynamic coalitions are slightly different.
They bring voluntary groupings of people together to solve key problems. Working with Verisign and colleagues at the US National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), we saw a need for the industry to collaborate on closing governance gaps in relation to DNS abuse.
There's been a lot of great work done on defining DNS abuse but it's important to remember the consumer. Internet users don't care if an issue falls into a particular definition of DNS abuse or not, they need an ecosystem-wide response that provides a better outcome for them.
Our consumer research is showing that consumers are feeling that scams are getting more and more prevalent. Every age group, every social and educational group falls victim to scams, and they all blame themselves. The Dynamic Coalition on DNS Issues is trying to better join up conversations across the sector – the content people, the hosting providers, the proxy providers and the DNS providers, so that we're not just passing the baton and we can achieve better outcomes for internet users.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Learn more about Emily’s work with the DNS Research Federation.
The views expressed are the interviewee’s own.