Address to Chatham House on the future of Internet Governance - “Global Village or Wild West?”

May 5, 2014

I am very honoured to speak here tonight at Chatham House, the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Chatham House has been at the forefront of policy debate on international affairs ever since it was established in the wake of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and in the decades that followed every major international issue has found a thoughtful and constructive chamber of debate and ideas here in St James.

There is always no shortage of challenges and crises claiming our attention. But there are few as important as the debate about the governance of the Internet, a debate which Richard Haas from your Manhattan counterpart, the Council on Foreign Relations, has described as the most significant strategic issue in 2014.

The Internet has transformed the world.

It has transformed us.

Before the Internet and for all of human history, the default was always to forget. We had to go to great efforts to remember whether it was painting on a cave wall, memorising ballads, writing, photographing.

But now as more and more of our lives are lived or at least recorded on line, in large part at our own initiative, is anything able to be forgotten? Things can be overlooked, but can they ever be deleted?

Our ideas of space and place are utterly transformed. In 1978 I went up to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar from Australia. Once there I had no news of Australia beyond the occasional cricket score and whatever newspaper clippings Lucy would include in our frequent correspondence. Telephone calls were far too expensive except for emergencies.

In 2001 our son Alex went to Harvard, only 23 years apart. Telephony was so cheap it was almost free, email was free and he could read every Australian newspaper, listen to Australian radio whenever he wished. In a generation that whole experience of travelling abroad to study had been irrevocably transformed.

One industry after another, one job after another that felt it was immune from foreign competition has become trade exposed. Greater competition has come with greater opportunities.

Rupert Murdoch predicted ruefully in the late 90s that the Internet would destroy more profitable businesses than it would create, and that may be true for his own empire, but overall the Internet has created so much opportunity – economic, social, intellectual, political than could ever have been imagined.

We are on the verge of a world in most people, and not just in the developed world, are connected to the Internet and hence at least potentially to each other 24/7 with a smart phone just like the one we all have in our pockets tonight.

There is no institution or infrastructure more important to the future prosperity and freedom of our global community than the Internet.

And in what should be a humbling lesson for politicians and governments, this Internet has grown almost entirely without the direction or control of any government.

This is not to say that it was developed, like the British Empire was acquired, in an absence of mind, but rather that while it had its origins with the research programmes of the US Department of Defence which led to the ARPANET, the role of the US Government since then has been admirably hands off.

Before I delve a little into the detail of the IANA function and the future of ICANN, let me say, at least on behalf of our own Government, how indebted we are to the United States not simply for its role in establishing the Internet but above all in its restraint culminating as we know in the recent decision of the US Government to finally withdraw entirely from any role in the technical governance of the Internet so long as the independence and freedom of that administration of the domain name system from other governmental control can be established.

Our Government, like Britain’s, is committed to freedom on and of the Internet. That means the governance of the Internet should not be in the hands of any government or group or organisation of governments.

And I should note that in my discussions today with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Mr Sajid Javid, and the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Mr Ed Vaizey we found ourselves absolutely of the same mind on this question.

We believe that ensuring that the architecture and administration of global cyberspace remains free of government domination or control is one of the key global strategic issues of our time.

Rather like the House of Lords in Iolanthe, the role of the US Government in the governance of the Internet has been to have “done nothing in particular but do it very well.”

The central contractual role of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the management of key internet domain name functions has in practice amounted to the retention of no more than reserve powers, providing an umbrella of security and confidence as the internet community, or to use the current inelegant jargon,  the global multi-stakeholder community, continued to demonstrate its ability to manage the domain name system equitably and efficiently in the interests of the world, not just one nation or one interest group..

In purely technical terms, it’s a role that has basically been nothing more than a rubber stamp between the policy and implementation mechanisms encoded elsewhere within the system; a checks and balance trigger, a relatively small function in the scheme of things but a big symbol, and a big area of international focus.

So the question becomes: if we remove an important power, albeit one never exercised, that acted as an external check on ICANN’s power and processes do we replace it with another? Or do we focus on ICANN’s internal governance mechanisms and ensure they are sufficient and robust, so that some form of external mechanism is no longer needed at all?

Should, for example, the community be looking for ways to structurally separate the policy, implementation and oversight functions within ICANN, or are other internal governance mechanisms needed?

There seem to me to be two separate but related issues here. The first is one of confidence, capability, accountability – in other words can ICANN be trusted to continue to do the job of administering the DNS or will the removal of the reserve power of the NTIA contract cause it to run of the rails and if so who will pull it back?

The second question is that of legitimacy. Why does ICANN have the right to undertake this function? And who is ICANN? It is fine to say in a breezy sort of way that it represents the global community of the Internet – the multi-stakeholder system – but how can we be sure that the board of ICANN is fairly representative of that community and if the Internet belongs to the world shouldn’t there be a more formal accountability.

The great virtue of the NTIA contract was that the United States Government being both the founder of the Internet (in many respects) conferred legitimacy. The weakness has been of course that some other countries suspected the US Government’s role was a controlling one and of course this anxiety has been greatly exacerbated by the Snowden revelations.

Of course, internet governance is not government; but there are important lessons to be learned from the way in which the parliamentary system of government practiced in Britain and Australia has, without a highly prescriptive constitution, provided a culture where fundamental principles of accountability, democracy, freedom of speech, rule of law among others are developed and maintained. The organic, as opposed to prescriptive, nature of our political culture is its greatest strength..

Any new governance arrangements within ICANN must not only be similarly robust and sustainable, they must encourage, promote and allow development and evolution. This is one of the strengths of ICANN’s current Affirmation of Commitment with the US, which provides for the periodic and ongoing review of key governance mechanisms within ICANN, including review of its accountability and transparency arrangements, with a view to continuous improvement.

Whether this needs to be replaced by something new, either at the same time as the IANA transition or separately, is an open question.  However, as with the IANA transition, we should be focusing on the underlying goals rather than being constrained by the current model.

The NTIA announcement is one small step in the inevitable and necessary evolution. Does it create a power vacuum? No. On the contrary, the US Government’s announcement can be seen as a significant vote of confidence in ICANN’s maturity, and acknowledgement of a successful evolutionary process.

It seems to me that as to the first question, that of capacity and accountability, the answer is simply that ICANN has demonstrated that the multi-stakeholder system has worked and that if there are refinements they probably lie in greater transparency and accountability. As far as legitimacy is concerned, it seems to me that the legitimacy of the multi-stakeholder system is derived from the fact of its successful operation. It is not a system or structure that would be designed by constitutional theorists, but it works.

We should think about this task not as though we were designing a political system but rather contributing to the development of an ecosystem, one that will sustain itself and evolve for decades to come.  

Global Commission of Internet Governance

It’s not an easy task, and I applaud Chatham House for fully involving the international community in the Global Commission of Internet Governance. In taking leadership, the Global Commission is addressing four key themes.

  • Enhancing governance legitimacy
  • Preserving innovation
  • Ensuring human rights online
  • Avoiding systemic risks

I would like to reflect for a moment on the preservation of innovation which in this case includes critical internet resources, infrastructure and competition policy.

Innovation by its very nature is disruptive, it destroys and replaces as it reinvigorates and reinvents. That’s a good thing; it’s the natural order of change and renewal. But it’s not enough to simply preserve innovation; we need to stimulate innovation... change... even if that means the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance ends up being expressed in a completely new form.

At the end of the day, this is a basically a contest between those who believe the Internet should be based on an open, free market participatory  principle  and those who believe it is a decentralised artefact that should be reined in and made subject to centralised control.

We should be aiming to ensure that any changes continue to stimulate innovation that strengthens the multi-stakeholder model with new devices, new methodologies. A key challenge will be how to evolve key internet governance organisations without their losing their multi-stakeholder and private-sector led character.

Trust and Privacy

For those who see the internet as benign agent of social and economic good, it is that. For others, whose motives are suspect at best, evil at worst, it is a strategic domain to be seized and controlled with all of us marked as potential victims in one form or another.

The internet, as with the physical world, is whatever someone, some nation, wants it to be ... it’s both a global village and a Wild West.

The focus on the governance of the internet parallels a rise in suspicion, supercharged by the Snowden revelations. Their shadow has cast a long pall. Many citizens have lost faith in the activities of their governments. Governments have lost faith in each other and corporations are losing faith in governments.

But any mistrust of the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance is absolutely misplaced in this context, given espionage and surveillance is not connected to the governance of the Internet; its open architecture agnostically enables all those seeking access, legitimately or not. 

Put another way the governance issues we are discussing today relate to the all important plumbing of the Internet and should not be confused with the content or practices that use that plumbing.

This year is a watershed moment for the Internet with world attention focussed as the debate ramps up at forums around the globe.

Brazil’s global multi stakeholder meeting on the future of governance held last week resulted in a series of internet governance principles that cover issues such as observing human rights online, cultural and linguistic diversity and a roadmap for the future evolution of the internet governance ecosystem.

Two representatives from my Department have just returned from the NetMundial meeting in Brazil. I am pleased to report that the statement that came out of NetMundial – officially titled ‘The Multistakeholder Statement of San Paulo” provides a fresh statement of policy that places a far more equal emphasis on the role of all stakeholders in the Internet governance landscape: national governments, civil society, academia, technical groups and users. The statement represents a clear and useful line in the sand for advocating the continued evolution of the multi-stakeholder model: it may see the world’s conversation about internet governance leave behind the old Manichaean dualities of government versus non-government stakeholders, or of ICANN versus ITU. The starting point for a dialogue on internet governance may now be constellations of different stakeholders, contributing their diverse expertise and strengths to a greater whole, without needing to usurp, co-opt or diminish each others’ roles. In this respect, NetMundial represents an important recognition of the success of a multistakeholder model of Internet governance. 


The Australian Government certainly does not have all the answers, and no one nation possibly could. It will take a genuinely global response to a genuinely global issue. In among the conflicting visions and agendas I am confident we will find a way through. Or the way through will find us.

Not one of us could have ever imagined what the internet would become, just as none of us can envisage where it will go. Its growth has been organic and any future governance structure needs to honour and build on that.

The Internet has a spirit that must not, and it is to be hoped cannot, be broken. It must never be controlled, with the power and ownership that is inherent in that, but it must be governed well. By all and for all.

Forums such as this one today are part of the global dialogue that is invaluable in supporting ICANN’s transition to a new model of governance under which the Internet remains free, stable and resilient.

I congratulate and thank Chatham House for the lead it is taking to that end.


Recommended Posts