Internet Governance: The Way It Works Now

There has been a lot of talk recently about the ITU getting involved with regulating aspects of the Internet. But some of you may be wondering how the Internet is governed now. If you don’t have multiple hours to devote to the rabbit warren of Wikipedia articles on the subject, read on for a brief explanation of the current organizations involved in Internet governance.

These organizations can be roughly divided into two major categories: international technical standards organizations and governance organizations. The technical standards organizations tend to deal with standards on a physical level: how to make a computer chip, for example. The governance organizations deal more with permissions and protocols: what are appropriate identifiers for computers on a network, or how to write a webpage that all computers will understand. But this is not a perfect rule, and there is significant overlap between the two groups.

International Technical Standards

There are three major international technical standards-setting bodies that impact Internet technologies: the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

What Do They Do?

Standards are a way of making sure that something is made consistently; for example, making sure that all countries use the same format for the bar codes on passports and visas, so that only one kind of scanner is needed at customs offices. The IEC publishes international standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies. The ISO has a broader mission, promulgating worldwide proprietary, industrial, and commercial standards. The ITU sets standards for how telecommunications networks work, as well as coordinating use of the radio spectrum and satellite orbits, and working to improve telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world. The IEC, ISO, and ITU all collaborate on standards to ensure compatibility between standards, or when a standard falls under the purview of multiple organizations.

Who Are They?

ITU is a body of the United Nations, while the other two are voluntary partnerships composed of national committees. These national committees can be public, private, or joint public-private, while the ITU is necessarily an inter-governmental organization.

I Have Strong Feelings About These Issues! Will They Listen to Me?

Well, that depends on where you live. Each country and national committee has its own procedures for public participation. In the U.S., for example, the IEC and ISO national committees are run by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI allows a public review period for standards, but requires interested parties to purchase copies of the drafts and mail comments to their office. In contrast, the British Standards Institute has a site dedicated to allowing comments on draft standards, including links to allow commenters to read the standards online, greatly improving the opportunity for public comment.

Additionally, the ITU allows private organizations to join as non-voting Sector Members. Currently, there are over 700 public and private sector companies acting as Sector Members. Reduced membership fees are available for organizations in developing countries and academic institutions, but the costs are still high, potentially in the tens of thousands of dollars. As a result, almost all Sector Members are for-profit companies, with a handful of educational institutions.

Internet Governance Organizations

Though it was originally developed by the U.S. government—which retains certain controls—almost all of the Internet’s current structure, development, and regulation comes from the private sector. The major governance organizations are the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Society (ISOC), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

What Do They Do?

ICANN is a nonprofit organization with authority over unique identifiers on the Internet, including Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which identify computers on the Internet, and top-level domains (.com, .net, etc.). Within ICANN, IP addresses are managed by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). IANA is managed by ICANN under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce, which also provides oversight. There have been complaints about the U.S.’s role in controlling the international resources IANA manages.

ISOC provides financial and structural support for the development of the Internet. It supports and promotes the work of the standards settings bodies for which it is the organizational home:

  • The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) develops and promotes Internet standards, cooperating closely with the W3C and ISO/IEC standards bodies and dealing in particular with standards of the TCP/IP and Internet protocol suite.
  • The Internet Architecture Board (IAB) is a committee of the IETF that represents the IETF in liaison relationships with other organizations. It also oversees the technical and engineering development of the Internet by ISOC.
  • The Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) is responsible for the overall operation of the IETF. It is composed of the IETF Chair and Area Directors.
  • The Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) focuses on long-term research issues related to the Internet such as Internet protocols, applications, architecture and technology. Projects are carried out by research groups with stable, long-term membership.

W3C is the main organization governing technical standards for the Internet, including HTML and XML. It was founded in 1994 to create uniformity in standards. At the time, different vendors were offering different versions of HTML, risking inconsistency; W3C’s goal was to create a set of core principles and components that would be used by all.

Who Are They?

These organizations are all global, private sector nonprofits. Some, like the IETF, started out as government entities that later transitioned to private organizations. Others, like W3C, had government support at their outset but were created as private organizations. Their funding mostly comes from membership dues and domain name registrations, although W3C also gets corporate donations.

I Have Strong Feelings About These Issues! Will They Listen to Me?

Yes! Although not a completely open process, the above organizations are all committed in various degrees to a bottom-up process that allows participation from multiple stakeholders, including the public.

  • ICANN holds public meetings, rotated between continents, to encourage participation in its processes; these meetings are simulcast online, when possible. It also has a public comment site and blog with open comments.
  • ISOC offers free membership to individuals; organizational membership, which includes representatives on the advisory council, starts at $1250 for nonprofit organizations and $2500 for for-profit organizations.
  • IETF Working Groups have open membership. To join, one must merely subscribe to the mailing list for the group.
  • IRTF Research Groups vary in their membership policies; some are open and some closed. Those with limited membership are required to report their progress to the community and encouraged to hold occasional open meetings.
  • W3C Working Group participation is limited to members and experts invited by members. Membership is open to all organizations, but costs start around $1000 per year. However, W3C provides other venues for public participation and discussion.

One of the most important things about this system of governance is that it is relatively apolitical. This is a key aspect of Internet governance, and one that must be maintained.

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