Revitalising Global Internet Governance

Technology Policy Internet Policy

Revitalising Global Internet Governance

Report
Posted on: 31st May 2022
Kieren McCarthy
Guest Author

Introduction

At the height of the early hostilities in Ukraine, during the initial implementation of the sanctions regime, Ukrainian government appealed to ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to cut Russia from the internet by revoking IP addresses and web domains including “.ru”, “.рф” and even “.su” – originally designated for the Soviet Union in 1991 – to prevent the dissemination of Russian propaganda.  This would have blocked around 5 million sites from the internet and significantly hindered Russia’s ability to communicate online. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emphasised the role that ICANN, along with RIPE NCC (the regional internet registry for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia), which received similar requests, plays in ensuring that the internet remains open and interoperable. While the internet-governance organisations reiterated their support for Ukraine, they reaffirmed their greater obligation to preventing the splintering of the internet along geographical, political, commercial or technological boundaries. 

On 28 April, in response to the increasing pressure on the stability of the internet, the United States and 60 partners formalised their commitment to the vision of an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure internet. While the declaration affirms its support for the relevant “multilateral and multistakeholder fora”, including ICANN, the Internet Governance Forum and the Freedom Online Coalition, and its intent to “contribute to existing processes”, it prompts the question of whether the unique decentralised system that has nurtured the internet so far may be losing its salience. In the face of this, and the failure of the organisations that govern the internet to evolve at sufficient pace to meet its current and future demands, are these organisations at risk of losing their legitimacy and global authority over one of the world’s most critical resources? 

As part of a work programme at the Tony Blair Institute of Global Change on a Model to Save the Future of the Internet, journalist and internet-governance expert Kieren McCarthy draws on the insights of leadership and practitioners from the internet-governance system, and sets out recommendations for revitalising the open multistakeholder model so that it is equipped to drive the internet beyond the next twenty years.  

Summary

While the internet touches every aspect of our lives—social, political and financial—the organisations that govern it are almost entirely technical in nature. Their focus lies on the maintenance, expansion and evolution of the network, and their work ensures that it can continue to carry a vast volume of electronic activity every day without fail.

In the 20 years since the internet’s governance structures were last scrutinised, this loose coalition of technical bodies has not evolved sufficiently to meet the needs of the modern world. They now risk losing both their legitimacy and their global authority over one of the world’s most critical resources.

Gaps in governance have not gone unnoticed. Reviews carried out by the organisations themselves have identified a wide range of issues that need to be addressed. But not enough has been done to fix them, and the flaws in internet governance continue to grow.

 These gaps are driven by four core problems:

  1. Absence of coordination: The absence of a coordination and cooperation function between the different internet governance bodies has damaged what were once close working relationships and robbed the internet technical community of a face and a voice.
  2. Lack of strategic direction: There is no clear strategic direction beyond maintaining and evolving the existing network, a situation that has encouraged insularity and reduced understanding of how the modern internet is used.
  3. Weak internal processes: Attempts at self-reform have led to dozens of reviews and hundreds of recommendations that organisations are struggling to address. At the same time, decision-making is taking longer, with delays becoming more frequent. Issues that demand greater attention are deprioritised. Collective action is reserved for crises, while workloads and internal frustration continue to increase.
  4. Weak participation: Despite a commitment to open participation, the organisations are too easily dominated by groups of dedicated or like-minded individuals who are able to resist change and limit effective participation by others. Self-interest and fixed mindsets have got in the way of progress.

Ironically, the main barrier to change is the same attribute that makes the internet unique: decentralised control. Just as the internet contains no central point of control by design, so the organisations that govern it have structured themselves to ensure similar levels of power distribution. Attempts to change the status quo are typically seen as efforts to impose control and so are reflexively resisted. This has stunted institutional evolution and left internet governance organisations out of step and at risk of losing their relevance.

Why Internet Organisations Matter

Effective internet governance organisations are essential to maintaining a global, interoperable internet. Without them, the internet would split into regional or national networks and the enormous benefits of global communication and commerce risk being lost.

Yet growing social and political problems have turned the internet into a battleground, and thus far internet governance organisations, as predominantly technical bodies, have been unable or unwilling to engage.

There will be technical solutions to many of the current problems facing the internet, but without more effective coordination and trust between the technical community and organisations responsible for the welfare of internet users, including business and government, such solutions are unlikely to be fully realised.

Recommendations

For internet governance organisations to remain effective and so retain a global, interoperable internet as well as protect the multistakeholder model of decision-making, we recommend they:

  1. Establish a cross-community coordination and communication body to serve as the internet technical community’s external access point, internal organisation and strategic home.
  2. Establish an independent action review body to review significant decisions, actions and processes in order to identify improvements and direct community workload.
  3. Assist the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in identifying the gaps in current structures and framing issues so that internet organisations have a stake in their governance.
  4. Reform participation structures and create pathways for new potential leaders, while also removing structures or positions that reinforce the status quo, to ensure more equitable access and influence at all levels.

 

The Growing Internet Governance Gap

The organisations responsible for governing the internet are ill equipped to deal with the range of new problems that the modern internet has created, and for which governments want solutions. Many of the emergent threats do not have a natural home within the current ecosystem. Challenges ranging from cybersecurity and misinformation to AI and crypto, as well as policy priorities such as data privacy, routinely go beyond the scope of technically focused bodies.

As a result, governments are increasingly looking to fill these governance gaps themselves, leading to a growing geopolitical tussle between the free-market United States, regulatory-focused European Union, and authoritarian instincts of China and Russia, in which the internet governance bodies currently play no role. Governance bodies are also absent from discussions within the broader internet-reliant tech industry dominated by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, where they are seen as utility providers rather than partners or oversight bodies. The same is true when it comes to innovations outside the existing internet technical model. There is growing interest in the use of blockchain technology, for example, to create a so-called Web 3.0, but that conversation lives entirely outside the traditional internet governance organisations.

Yet far from being an oversight, this lack of formal engagement has been deliberate. The bodies that built the internet and continue to both maintain and evolve its technical underpinnings each have a specific technical mandate. Discussion of topics or issues beyond those boundaries is discouraged, and in an effort to limit their legal and political exposure, they have chosen to observe events from a distance. It is a strategy that prioritises certainty and stability over flexibility and innovation. This is attractive for the internet pioneers who built a global network against incumbent opposition, and who continue to maintain strategic control of internet governance organisations through their boards. However, it has also led to a growing internet governance gap between what is needed from global technical authorities and what they are willing or able to provide.

The Constellation of Internet Governance Organisations

Figure 1: A map of internet governance organisations

Source: Kieren McCarthy and TBI

 

While states and civil-society actors contribute to internet governance, “internet governance organisations” primarily refers to the bodies that secure, maintain and develop the internet’s underlying infrastructure. As they derive legitimacy from their ability to make changes to the fabric of the internet, and these changes require wide consensus to be deployed at scale, the only way they can operate effectively is to allow anyone impacted by a change to have a say in it. Internet governance organisations are therefore uniquely focused around two core principles:

  1. Open participation and public decision-making
  2. Distributed decision-making power

There are four key components to the work that these organisations carry out: knowledge, community, leadership and process.

 

Knowledge

The internet represents its own arm of engineering. Starting from a radical concept about how information could be split up into data packets and repackaged at the other end, the modern internet incorporates countless inventions and innovations. Changes to it require in-depth understanding and technical knowledge.

Community

The internet was built by a global network of individuals: that remains true today, even with the advent of tech giants. The active and largely voluntary efforts of tens of thousands of people hold the internet together. This remains the network’s strength. Without that community, the internet as we know it would cease to exist.

Leadership

Due to the internet’s scale, complexity, radical nature and impact, its development has more closely mirrored the birth of a nation than the creation of a company or adoption of a new invention. From its earliest days, leaders have played a vital role in driving the internet’s growth and transformation, and any changes in direction or approach will require bold and effective leadership.

Process

Internet organisations use a more open, inclusive and democratic form of decision-making than traditional organisations; it is open to all participants and they are given equal weight. In order to make that multistakeholder model work, new systems were designed to drive discussions and reach decisions. Those processes need improvement but remain critical to how internet governance organisations do their job.

The Varying Roles of Internet Organisations

The effectiveness of internet governance depends on how well the four components of the institutions’ work can be combined. Some bodies have been more successful than others, but all have suffered from the fact that they tend to see things in terms of their own role and organisation rather than the larger internet ecosystem.

Technically Focused Bodies

Most organisations are still run by internet engineers and much of the work remains highly technical, with participation largely self-limiting to other engineers. These bodies include:

  • Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the internet’s main standards board, where any “technically competent” participant can contribute
  • Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), which distribute the internet addresses that computers use to communicate one another, also focus on open participation but engage more with large corporations and governments.
  • Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) distributes and oversees the internet addresses that humans use to communicate with one another. It is still technical in nature but has to accommodate a much wider range of interests, from user groups and nonprofits to intellectual property lawyers. It also contains the industry that has grown up around selling domain names and which funds the organisation’s work.
  • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the standards body for the web, i.e. websites.
  • Root Server Operators are a small group that maintain the global servers that help connect computer addresses to human addresses.
  • Finally there are the groups that deal with the exchange of data across the network, including internet service providers, network operators and internet exchanges.

Socially Focused Bodies

  • The Internet Society (ISOC) is a nonprofit advocacy group for internet engineers and the internet more generally.
  • The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is an open forum run by the United Nations that discusses internet governance issues but doesn’t make decisions.

While ISOC is focused on policy and society, it primarily orients its work programme around technical issues. This means that, with the exception of the IGF, internet governance organisations have an overwhelmingly technical focus—which can lead to challenges. For example, ICANN, the organisation closest to the end user, has struggled with balancing competing interests, particularly on nontechnical subjects, and has been the centre of seemingly constant controversy and global attention as a result. This is a situation that other internet governance organisations are keen to avoid and which has prevented closer organisational ties.

Key Challenges

Against the backdrop of a growing internet governance gap—with states, tech firms and frontier innovators racing ahead—there are several core challenges that hold organisations back from demonstrating their legitimacy and building their authority:

  1. Absence of Coordination

The lack of strong coordination and cooperation among organisations means that, as the internet has continued to expand, gaps have opened up both within organisations and between them. While cross-community information sharing does exist, it is largely passive and reliant on board-level contacts rather than built at the organisational level. Meetings of the heads of internet organisations—known internally as “I-star” (I*) meetings—have taken place periodically, but in the absence of a shared body of work, the level of collaboration is dependent on leaders’ personal rapport.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no shortage of issues, both technical and strategic, that would benefit from internet governance organisations’ expertise. But these rarely fit neatly within a single organisation’s remit. This includes issues as varied as privacy, security, malicious actors and algorithmic decision-making, as well as more recent issues including cyberattacks, internet shutdowns, misinformation and new technologies such as blockchain. Each requires internet organisations to actively engage with outside entities to arrive at an effective policy or standards solution.

However, the decision not to engage with issues outside technical parameters defined in the 1990s has prevented them from addressing these growing concerns. By refusing to consider anything that happens “over the network” (meaning content, but also data) as opposed to “on the network” (the technical functioning of the internet), internet governance organisations have cut themselves off from their own creation. The problem is compounded by an assumption that any issues that impact technical functions will be brought to an organisation’s attention, rather than requiring proactive discovery.

Without an effective coordination and cooperation function, problems go unresolved, undermining confidence in the system overall. One recent example is the European Commission’s proposal to develop its own system for connecting users to websites (a DNS resolver), which it made without even consulting internet governance organisations.

There remains a strong cultural desire within all internet organisations to fix problems, and a common belief in the need and value of a global, interoperable internet. That should be sufficient to enable successful joint collaborations, especially if the issues are well framed and the process is given support and direction. Moreover, if the outside world saw internet governance organisations actively tackling these problems in an open and transparent way, it would not only bolster their legitimacy but also strengthen the multistakeholder model.

  1. Lack of Strategic Direction

Most internet governance bodies produce and publish an official strategic plan, updated annually, to identify their organisational priorities. The plans are notable for how little they change and their insularity; rarely are other internet governance organisations mentioned, let alone the broader world.

While the impact of the internet is being discussed at every level in society, those responsible for ensuring its success are still focused on resolving issues from the past instead of looking to the future, reflecting the fact that many of the organisations’ founders still hold board positions.

Term limits have proved ineffective at promoting turnover: when one leadership role is vacated, it is taken by another founder in a rotating system that has gone on for so long that some can list board membership of multiple internet organisations, and even the same organisation a second time around.

More recent arrivals talk freely about the need for new leadership and fresh blood. They warn of fixed mindsets that have prevented governance organisations from embracing the modern internet, but there has in reality been little change.

  1. Weak Internal Processes

One key feature of internet governance organisations, derived from its open participation philosophy, is that of “bottom-up” policymaking, where the internet community brings issues to the attention of the various organisations for consideration. But what was a pragmatic approach in the early days of the internet has become increasingly inefficient as the internet has expanded into every corner of society.

Internet organisations report being overwhelmed and suffering from volunteer burnout as workloads pile up. Issue selection is often ad hoc, or driven by crisis, and prioritisation efforts have consistently fallen short. There is even a dogmatic aspect to “bottom-up” issue selection where a proposal to simplify or bundle issues is viewed as “top-down” and an inappropriate assertion of control.

The IETF uses Requests for Comments (RFCs) to consult on and approve internet standards. Recent years have seen a drop off, with the number of new standards now at the same level as before the dotcom boom, despite an explosion in global internet use. This reflects how, while the IETF is focused on the underlying network layer of the internet, much of today’s innovation takes place in user-facing applications by private companies.

Figure 2: Number of Requests for Comment approved by the IETF since its founding

Source: IETF

 

While the decline in RFCs can be interpreted a sign of maturity and natural settling for the internet’s network layer, as well as the impact of Covid-19 on in-person conferences, it may also highlight either that the IETF is more cautious than it once was and its processes thus take longer, or that it has lost relevance. Without a global authority pushing for interoperability, however, new innovations may not work globally and are often controlled by a single company or group.

Internet governance bodies have reached a point familiar to many organisations, where long-used systems and processes no longer serve their best interests and can even prove counterproductive. While there is widespread acknowledgement of this fact within the organisations themselves, for years they have made efforts to adjust but with varying degrees of success. Many of these efforts are managed or overseen by people with a vested interest in their outcome.

The missing piece is external accountability: no organisation has a sufficient incentive to change how it works. Effective institutional change will require objective assessments of how specific systems are performing both individually and with consideration to the larger organisation and internet. Collective, rather than siloed, issue framing would also be in everyone’s interests, avoiding duplication of efforts.

      4. Weak Participation

Internet governance organisations are founded on the principle of open participation. But high barriers to entry, as well as structures that favour discussion over decision, combine to create two related challenges:

  • Low relative participation: Internet organisations’ work affects billions of internet users, networks and companies, yet their membership comprises only a tiny proportion of this wider pool. Despite bodies’ commitment to open governance, they end up being relatively exclusive.
  • High absolute participation: Working groups and governance meetings, particularly in less technical fora such as the Internet Governance Forum, can generate significant discussion but frequently fail to arrive at, and execute, a plan for delivery. Wide, inclusive participation is essential but large numbers of contributions can become overwhelming, particularly if they are too high-level to inform specific actions.

More recently, self-imposed limits on discussion have affected participation from the broader internet community. Conference corridors are noticeably quieter. Academic and press interest has dimmed. Meeting attendees report that networking is their main reason for turning up. There are also organisational barriers: documents are overwhelmingly in English only; public forums were designed for North American participants and have not changed; meetings rotate around the world, adding a significant travel burden. In some cases, official representatives have their flights, food and accommodation paid for, creating different classes of participants and a reduced incentive to expand membership.

The IETF notes that it will consider any comment from a “technically competent” individual and does not recognise affiliations. While laudable, this can also exclude nontechnical actors and individuals who have no choice but to represent an organisation (while others do so surreptitiously to achieve a desired end result, as Edward Snowden revealed).

As participation narrows, the organisations have found themselves expending more time and resources on internal issues and solving industry-specific problems rather than tackling larger internet issues.

The once radical internet governance organisations have begun to look and feel outdated. While there have been few attempts to deploy alternative approaches, such as consensus-oriented deliberation platforms, day-to-day work is still carried out over email rather than messaging systems or community forums. Information is shared through static websites and social media communication comprises one-way announcements rather than member engagement.

A Future Model of Multistakeholder Internet Governance

Despite these issues, the coalition of internet governance organisations remains our best chance to retain a global, interoperable internet. Collectively, the organisations possess an institutional understanding of the scale and complexity of the internet and how to guide it that surpasses any other group.

Just as importantly, they remain focused on what is good for the internet, and by extension its billions of current and future users—rather than what would bring the most financial reward, deliver the largest number of hits, resolve for pre-decided policy outcomes, or yield the most influence or power.

But if internet governance organisations are to maintain their global authority through the next wave of the internet’s evolution, they must:

  • Recognise they have fallen out of step with the modern internet
  • Embrace change and rethink mindsets
  • Look inward less and outward more
  • Act more cohesively as an internet technical group
  • Put the internet and its multistakeholder model of decision-making first

In practice, this means addressing the root causes of their current malaise with reforms focused on improving coordination, direction, processes and participation.

1. Establish a cross-community coordination and communication body

Figure 3: Reform can build on internet organisations’ existing strengths

 

 

 

Source: Kieren McCarthy and TBI

 

Internet governance organisations have largely avoided legal and political problems by sticking to their technical mandates. But by failing to find a way to engage on broader issues, their authority has dimmed and cohesion has suffered.

Numerous examples from history show how a specialist group can continue its work and protect its culture while also benefiting from inclusion in a larger group. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has three distinct and different sectors and has survived several technological revolutions (it was originally called the International Telegraph Union) by recognising the value of banding together.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) contains two radically different cultures—one open, the other highly secretive—that sit side by side in order to share knowledge and serve as a single locus of expertise on nuclear energy.

Both those organisations defined their own structures, and internet governance organisations are in a similar position to institutionalise their shared values of a global, interoperable internet, a decentralised power structure, and a participatory democracy through the multistakeholder model, while also providing the world with a locus of expertise. Acting together, internet governance organisations can assure their future and limit attempts to pull the internet in a different direction.

By creating a new coordination and communication body to work across organisations, internet governance bodies would take an important step towards permanence and be better placed to influence the network’s future.

The new body would assume no authority and act more as a network node or root server than a traditional oversight body, serving as a source of authoritative information without assuming rights or ownership over it. Other organisations from governments to corporations to media outlets would be able to query the body and receive an authoritative response.

It would also serve as an internal coordinator and convenor, take on cross-cutting issues and develop responses by pulling together expertise from across organisations. By compiling data from different internet groups, it could serve as a repository of knowledge and strategic priorities both internally and externally, and allow for more effective participation from all stakeholders by acting as a reliable source of current information.

By fostering deeper ties between internet governance organisations, the body would increase the internet ecosystem’s overall health and provide a much-needed space for discussion between organisations, not just at the board level but also among area managers, advisory committee representatives and working groups.

2. Establish an independent action review body

It is time for the internet community to take advantage of expertise that does not exist within its ranks. Previous efforts at self-reform, though concerted, have not worked: dozens of reports and hundreds of recommendations have served only to overwhelm already busy organisations and divert resources away from core work. Proposals for change are skewed when the authors, or implementers, have a vested interest in the end result.

Internet governance organisations need to learn the lessons of corporations and governments and allow independent, objective auditors to observe and analyse how they approach their work, using international standards to assess their effectiveness.

There is a huge body of work that covers how internet organisations function and what their goals are: more than enough to allow skilled professionals to make detailed and accurate observations, relate them to relevant examples from other industries and draw out improvements. That kind of audit function is different from the short-term reviews that the internet governance organisations have used so far.

We propose that internet governance organisations set up an independent action review body along the lines of the United States’ Government Accountability Office (GAO), the United Nations’ Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), Australia and the UK’s National Audit Office, or, in the private sector, Meta’s Oversight Board. It should use established working procedures, possess full independence, have a reliable funding source and be staffed by people with relevant professional experience following a strict conflict-of-interest policy. By limiting review to past actions and remaining advisory only, concerns over authority would be limited. Its expertise could also be tapped to oversee or develop after-action reviews of significant decisions or events.

The benefits of such an approach would be significant: a reduction in workload and community frustration; objective advice on process improvements; a timely feedback mechanism within a complex and fast-moving industry; and a healthy model of review and improvement.

3. Assist the IGF in identifying and framing internet governance gaps

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has proved its value, and it is time to give it a greater role within internet governance. To that end, internet governance organisations should lend their full support to the IGF as it embraces a decision-making remit from the United Nations Secretary General by encouraging the forum to identify gaps in internet governance and carry out the complex task of framing them.

The forum has amassed a substantial body of work over the past 15 years and its Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) is empowered to identify important, recurring topics as well as set the annual meeting’s agenda. It should spotlight specific topics and adapt its Parliamentary Track approach to move discussion towards a structured, action-oriented output that could then be taken forward by other organisations.

This approach would also allow the IGF to strengthen bonds with local and national IGFs by asking them to begin the work of gathering input on specific issues in advance of the annual meeting. The annual meeting would serve as a natural deadline for subsequent policy work, where all parties can come together to move the issue forward and engage in multistakeholder reconciliation and identify pragmatic solutions.

This approach would enable internet governance organisations to lend their expertise as well as stay up to date on current internet issues. Our proposed coordination and communication body would be ideally placed to collate and provide input from internet governance organisations, giving the technical community a powerful global voice and ensuring solutions are technically feasible.

4. Reform participation structures and create pathways for new potential leaders

To ensure equitable, effective influence at all levels, internet governance organisations need to face two difficult truths:

  • Organisations’ own boards have become a barrier to necessary reform
  • Low levels of participation from the global internet community entrench existing biases and create a groupthink which leads to ossified institutions

Only deep, comprehensive reform of participation structures will allow organisations to improve their relevance, legitimacy and credibility for the long term.

New Leadership

The internet is suffering from a case of founder’s syndrome: resistance to change, paranoia, a lack of strategic direction and accountability, the sidelining of people brought in to fix problems, and a failure to plan for succession.

Thanks to the huge collaborative effort required to build the internet, there are not one but several dozen founders, and decades later many of them still hold leadership positions. Often they rotate unelected roles among themselves in an effort to preserve an original ethos.

Hard-learnt lessons have a half-life, however, and as the internet continues to evolve in rapid and unexpected directions, its governance organisations need to follow suit. Attempts to modernise or professionalise the institutions have been repeatedly blocked, leading to a loss of potential leaders to other industries and sectors.

Worse, processes introduced to retain internet pioneers in key roles—including the introduction of nominating committees in place of direct elections—have created a cultural legacy of entrenchment that favours the status quo, excludes fresh perspectives and limits the very dynamism that made the internet possible in the first place. A global internet needs global representation and by any measure its governance organisations are lagging.

There are signs of progress. The IETF recently underwent a successful evolution that saw it gain autonomy while confronting outdated attitudes. ICANN continues to experiment with different styles of leadership and has begun to address structural flaws, which include a tendency towards hierarchical power and legal protectionism.

Perhaps most significantly, the internet community has started to wake up to the fact that its representatives no longer reflect their values. The Internet Society, the seat of pioneer power and source of much of the community’s money, was recently the centre of a significant controversy for trying to sell the nonprofit .org registry to a venture capital firm for over $1 billion. The decision stunned the internet community which hadn’t been informed or consulted, and led to a backlash that eventually saw the deal scrapped. There is universal agreement that ISOC’s reputation was severely damaged as a result but calls for a public review have gone unheard and to date no one has taken responsibility.

That controversy may yet prove to be a catalyst for much-needed change. Failing that, it may take a genuine crisis for the internet community to finally tackle long-standing and endemic problems, with no guarantee that its current role in protecting a global internet would survive such a process.

Wider Participation

 Beyond the top tiers, too many community members assume that because organisations rightly refused to introduce financial or representative barriers to participation, as other telecommunications bodies have done, they created an open participation space. But cultural norms continue to serve as barriers and diminish legitimate voices, and open participation empowers disruption, whether that’s individuals derailing discussions or lobbying campaigns flooding policy processes through online tools.

Similarly, high levels of participation are seen as a problem rather than a success, especially if staff are incentivised to keep issues moving forward. In turn, this can make lower participation an attractive goal and a lack of noise can become wrongly equated with agreement.

Minimal efforts to measure or assess participation have left internet governance organisations blind to their biases. Only a fully considered review of progress against principles of access and influence will reveal the true scope of participation problems and help identify solutions that maintain openness while minimising disruption.

Conclusion

Twenty years ago, the world’s governments came together at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to decide what to do with governance of the internet. While many felt its natural home lay in the United Nations, that suggestion was rightly beaten back by a coalition of governments and campaigners who recognised that the internet’s existence and unique qualities had only been made possible through the open collaborative approach of non-traditional bodies.

Given today’s growing geopolitical tensions, including increasing fragmentation and authoritarianism, the role of these bodies has never been more important. It is essential that internet governance organisations demonstrate to the world that the open, multistakeholder approach can not only be relied upon to provide practical solutions for the next 20 years but also represents the best path forward for emergent governance issues.

To meet this challenge, internet organisations will need to radically rethink their approach. Structures and processes must focus on action and delivery over endless, messy consultation; participation must become truly inclusive, with new leadership and community members bringing novel ideas and approaches; and organisations must be much more coordinated, and collaborative with each other. It is only through revitalising their core approaches to governance that internet organisations will remain relevant as the internet era progresses.

Acknowledgements

The author is extremely grateful to the following for sharing their expertise as part of the research behind this report: Fiona Alexander, former senior US government official, Co-founder Salt Point Strategies and Distinguished Policy Strategist in Residence at American University; Fred Baker, retired software engineer, IETF IPv6 Operations Chair, ICANN RSSAC Chair; Cherine Chalaby, Board Trustee at Meta's Oversight Board; Gwen Cooper, CEO Cooper Solutions; John Curran, President and CEO at ARIN; Bertrand de la Chapelle, Executive Director, Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network; Chris Disspain, Chairman of DNS Capital; Avri Doria, independent research consultant, Director at ICANN; Monika Ermert, journalist; Patrik Fältström, Technical Director and Head of Security, Netnod; Roberto Gaetano, European Regional At-Large Organisation (EURALO) Board member at ICANN; Richard Hill, former senior ITU official, President of Association for Proper Internet Governance; Pablo Hinojosa, Strategic Engagement Director of APNIC; Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus; Warren Kumari, Senior Network Engineer at Google; Markus Kummer, former Swiss diplomat and IGF Executive Coordinator; Paul Levins, cofounder of Xinova; Jason Livingood, IETF Administration Chair, Vice President of Technology Policy and Standards at Comcast; Jacob Malthouse, founder of .eco domain; Desiree Miloshevic, internet policy adviser, former Special Adviser to the UN Chair of Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) at IGF; Milton L. Mueller, Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy; Mark Nottingham, Chair of HTTP Working Group at IETF; Emily Taylor, CEO, Oxford Information Labs and Associate Fellow, Chatham House; and Nick Thorne, former UK Ambassador to the United Nations.

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