Within living memory, internet access has developed from a novelty reserved for hobbyists, to an optional luxury, to being nearly fundamental for daily life. This is so much the case that recent years have seen a push as a fundamental utility. Essentially, advocates want it to be subject to similar regulations as power and water.
But despite the internet’s ever-increasing prominence in our lives, knowledge of how it functions and is managed is not widespread. Most casual users just take for granted that there’s someone out there who manages the internet.
But due to its decentralized nature, internet governance, administration, and maintenance are far more complicated than most realize. So what goes into keeping the internet up and running? And how does it impact our lives?
How is the Internet Managed?
The physical infrastructure of the internet is distributed throughout the world. As such, its management requires the cooperation of the entire international community, both public and private.
It’s easy to assume that governments control the internet. To an extent, this is indeed true.
Individual governments have the authority to control activities within their borders. For example, they can ban activities like online gambling, the sale of contraband, or block certain content as they see fit.
But because the internet isn’t run by a single government, no one nation has the ability to make unilateral decisions about how it’s run. Instead, they have to collaborate amongst each other and the private sector to come up with a series of internet governance best practices.
What is Internet Governance?
Internet governance is a term with shifting definitions. In the ’90s, it referred to a few policies meant to ensure that the internet ran the same for everyone who used it. Its definition has since broadened into a sweeping set of principles and decision-making guidelines meant to shape how the internet will develop moving forward.
Now, in addition to world governments, there is a cavalcade of private entities who all have a stake in keeping the internet up and running.
Probably the most prominent of these is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). They are a private nonprofit that takes responsibility for maintaining much of the technical infrastructure that keeps the internet operational. If you could single out any one group that “runs” the internet, it would probably be them.
For most of their existence, ICANN functioned under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of commerce. However, the contract that established that relationship ended in 2016, begin a transition to a more global, multistakeholder concept.
Rather than being spurred by any policy decision, this was always the eventual plan. Part of ICANN’s stated purpose is to foster global representation within the internet community. This goal would always be at odds with ICANN’s function as an appendage of the government.
Who Manages the Internet Moving Forward?
The short answer is everyone. As the internet doesn’t belong to any single faction, it comes down to all of us to work toward an internet that best serves us all. The internet has evolved constantly since it was opened up to the public in the mid-’90s.
It will only become more complex in the next 20 to 30 years. And with new advancements come new refinements to policy.
And who manages the internet has changed with time as well. Initially, the United States had the largest amount of control. After relinquishing much of this control in 2016, the expectation is to see more democratized input.
Moving forward, we expect an ongoing debate over best practices. Privacy, competitiveness, and innovation are all concerns that need to be balanced when writing policy.
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