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Governing the Future of the Internet

Photo: Toria /

The internet is global. So the approach to internet governance should be global as well, right?

Not exactly.

The internet, as a network, is decentralized, which makes it inherently difficult to govern. It belongs to everyone, but is owned by nobody. This speaks to a question that’s been around for decades—one centered around how we might govern the technical aspects of the internet.

Jovan Kurbalija, director of the DiploFoundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform, spoke to these very issues at a New America event on Monday.

“Global governance sounds logical, but when you really dig into the digital policy, you see that the impact of the internet is very local, given the social, economic, political, and cultural context,” Kurbalija said.

Over the past few years, there have been significant changes in the way the internet is governed and controlled. In 2016, for instance, the United States relinquished its direct oversight of internet governance, of which it had little to begin with, to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN, which had operated under a contract with the U.S. government since 1998, is the sole organization with the power to make large-scale changes in the Domain Name System—the system that allows you type in a domain name, like, instead of a series of numbers.

Although some criticized the United States’ decision regarding ICANN, the country’s oversight of the organization had been causing significant diplomatic tensions. Countries and regions around the world look at internet governance in different ways, depending on what they want from the internet. Some look at it from a national security standpoint or as a means to control their political regime. Others see it as an engine for economic innovation or development or as a tool for freedom, communication, and science.

Jane Coffin, director of Development Strategy at Internet Society, works with developing countries to build internet infrastructure. She acknowledged that internet governance in developing countries is different from the needs of developed countries, which goes back to Kurbalija’s point about the potential benefits of local governance: We can perhaps best tap into the internet’s services by allowing different regions to govern its technical aspects (though, of course, such a move can itself kick up controversy).

The challenge, however, lies in determining how local governance—or any governance—will function. An important piece of that puzzle is the people leading the charge. Megan Stifel, founder and CEO of Silicon Harbor Consultants LLC and the cybersecurity policy director at Public Knowledge, noted that the transfer of ICANN, while successful, proved to be an exhausting process for the people working on the project.

“There’s a scarcity of people who have the capacity and the knowledge to manage some of these more technical issues,” Stifel said. “We need to build a greater technical capacity among civil society, but also among governments to understand where we are now and how we can best maintain the platform.”

Coffin echoed that sentiment, stressing the need for a new generation of technical leaders.

“It’s important to reinvigorate people and communities, but also working on the ground and using a grassroots effort to reinvigorate that conversation,” Coffin said. “We need to talk to the youth about this issue—to invigorate them and draw them to this effort.”

The future of internet governance is uncertain, particularly because there are so many theories as to what will actually work best. Yet there appears to be some degree of unity in that uncertainty: that young leaders ought to be crucial participants in the conversation. With no specific policy at the forefront, the discussion and development of internet governance will be long and tiresome. A surge of young people, though, might just ensure that the effort establishes a system of governance that allows the internet to truly belong to everyone.


Catherine Wilson is an intern with New America's editorial and communications departments.