There is a strong argument to be made for calling the Internet one of the greatest inventions of all time. The World Wide Web presents countless possibilities for the economic and cultural advancement of mankind, facilitating everything from communications to commerce across the globe. It holds the potential to connect communities and advance society in what many tech experts describe as the fourth industrial revolution, but as the Internet’s usership and potential continue to grow, some level of management appears necessary. How does the global community define and ensure the appropriate use, consistency, and accessibility of the Internet around the world?
The answer, it would seem, is Internet governance. While the concept began as an umbrella term for a small number of policy issues regarding the Internet’s early global infrastructure, it has since broadened to comprise not only technical standards but also matters of policy, strategy, and philosophy. In 2005 the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society defined it as “the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society […] of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”
Internet governance requires the collaboration of the numerous stakeholders who use and, in the process, shape the Internet, and one organization is leading efforts to bring these stakeholders together in pursuit of a common goal; in 2015 the World Economic Forum (WEF) launched a multi-year project aimed at exploring potential systems of online governance that account for the Internet’s increasingly global nature while preserving the unique cultures and economies that benefit from it.
Called the Governance on the Internet project, the endeavor began with an in-depth investigation of the current challenges facing online governance. Going forward, it will focus on developing and implementing plans of action in partnership with governments, companies, academic institutions, and individual “netizens” the world over. The following outlines how the WEF is building the foundations of effective online governance:
Spurring the Development of National Digital Strategies
Through its Country Digital Strategies workstream, the World Economic Forum is partnering with countries around the world to develop individual digital strategies that complement broader global goals for Internet governance. Trustees from the WEF Future of the Internet initiative and local community leaders have worked to educate public officials on pertinent digital issues and develop effective strategies to meet challenges such as managing digital trade, setting Internet regulations, and facilitating equal Internet access. Throughout 2016, these groups gathered at Country Digital Strategy Dialogues to further develop digital strategies for their respective nations.
Spearheading Research on Internet Fragmentation
Integral to WEF’s online governance efforts is its Internet Fragmentation workstream, which works to unravel the increasingly compartmentalized nature of the Internet. At the organization’s 2015 annual meeting, a session entitled “Keeping ‘Worldwide’ in the Web” focused on the various obstacles standing in the way of an open global Internet, as well as the economic, socio-cultural, and personal benefits that such an Internet would present. While the meeting identified Internet fragmentation as an emerging issue, it also illustrated it as a little-understood topic. For this reason, Internet fragmentation research has been a key aspect of the WEF Future of the Internet and subsequent Governance on the Internet initiatives.
At the World Economic Forum’s 46th annual meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, the organization released a comprehensive report on Internet fragmentation. Positioning the concept as one inherently as odds with an open Internet, the detailed investigation describes a fragmented Internet as one in which technological, governmental, and commercial decisions prevent the consistent delivery of Internet services and impede the free creation, distribution, and access of information. Further WEF meetings have identified several different types of fragmentation, delving deeper into their roots and overall impact on communities. This information will be invaluable to the WEF’s efforts to shape the Internet of tomorrow.
Promoting Digital Trade
The Digital Trade division of WEF’s Governance on the Internet project is responsible for bringing together governments, companies, and e-commerce experts from around the world to develop and promote policies that will allow digital trade to thrive. This workstream seeks to inspire free trade agreements and legislation that will not only enable the efficient exchange of digital products and services but will also ease the international exchange of data.
Supporting Internet Monitor
The WEF Governance on the Internet workstreams cooperate with the Internet Monitor project at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, which works to investigate and document Internet activity and governance across the globe. Serving a broad audience of Internet researchers, advocates, policymakers, and general users, Internet Monitor provides information on Internet access and infrastructure in nearly 100 nations while offering expert insight on global Internet trends via its blog and research portals. This Harvard resource also helps users visualize data on a variety of web-related topics by generating unique data-display widgets, while its AccessCheck tool—currently in closed beta—allows users to determine whether specific websites are accessible in particular nations.
Inspiring the Governments of the Future
Individuals in the WEF’s Government 4.0 workstream are investigating not only how governments can and should regulate the Internet but also how they can use it to better serve their constituents. Concerned with the digital enhancement of everything from administrative decision-making to the provision of government services, this division of the World Economic Forum’s online governance project is, in many ways, a driver of digital transformation in the government sector.