BY ALEX SCROXTON
The internet has reached a crossroads in its history, and concerted and immediate action is needed to preserve the openness, transparency, security and inclusivity that have made it such an important factor in global social and economic improvement over the past two and a half decades.
This was the key conclusion of the Global Commission on Internet Governance’s final report and recommendations on the future of the internet, One Internet, which was released at the OECD Ministerial Meeting on the Digital Economy in Mexico.
Set up two years ago, the commission was chaired by former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, and included among its members Wendy Hall, professor of electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton.
Speaking to Computer Weekly at the time of the commission’s launch in 2014, Hall said the internet was finely balanced between “controlled spaces” and “utter anarchy”, and an international approach to governance was vital, hence her decision to join the commission.
“We need to understand what we can expect when it comes to companies and governments accessing our data. The founders of the internet didn’t set it up for governments to gather data on us – that was never the intention, and we must explore this,” she said.
In the wake of the commission’s final report, Hall said the fundamental question that now had to be answered is how to meet the governance challenges the internet creates, without undermining those aspects that make it a powerful platform for social and economic growth around the world.
“The choice of not making a choice is, in itself, a choice – one that could lead to harsh consequences. We risk a world where the internet is closed, insecure and untrustworthy – a world of digital haves and have-nots,” said Hall.
“The action outlined by the report must be taken soon so that we can create an environment of broad, unprecedented progress where everyone can benefit from the power of the internet.”
Bildt added: “The threats to privacy and the risk that the internet will break apart are real.”
“If we want a future where the internet continues to provide opportunities for economic growth, free expression, political equality and social justice then governments, civil society and the private sector must actively choose that future and take the necessary steps to achieve it,” he said.
Recommendations for governments and companies
The One Internet report contained a number of recommendations for both national governments and IT companies.
Among the most important of these recommendations are that governments should only intercept, collect and analyse communications data for legitimate, open and legal purposes, which does not include gaining a domestic political advantage, industrial espionage or repression.
Governments should not force the industry to compromise the security of their products through hidden backdoors, and should refrain from making companies their enforcement arms.
It also suggested the private sector act to establish a system of transparency reporting that showed what content was being restricted or blocked by state-level actors, and why.
National governments should also collaborate to provide mutual assistance to deter and limit the damage inflicted by cyber attacks, and refuse shelter to those who commission or carry them out. Governments should also collaborate to create a list of off-limits targets.
When it came to the online security of the general public, the commission recommended consumers be free to choose what services they use and be given greater say in how their personal data was used by these services.
It added that no user should be excluded from using an online service on the basis that they were worried about their security.
For industry, the commission recommended that the developers of new technologies ensure their creations remain compatible and open standards-based. It also suggested innovators ensure their creations conform to principles of openness to provide a platform for future innovators.
Read more about the open internet
- International norms of behaviour should prohibit states from conducting cyber intellectual property theft, says Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
- Any legislation on encryption should be preceded by an in depth and careful reflection process, says EU Civil Liberties Committee chair Claude Moraes.
- The collapse of confidence in the online world predicted in 2001 is happening. Trust will only be rebuild when the banks, telcos and ISPs work together to take security and privacy seriously.
The commission also set out goals around ensuring the internet was as inclusive as possible, saying governments should act to provide public access where possible, do more to improve digital literacy through education in schools and ensure accessibility to disabled people and others more likely to be excluded.
Importantly, the report also suggested that refugees – of whom there are now 65.3 million in the world, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) – be provided with access to the internet by host governments, NGOs, or a combination of both.
It added that the IT sector needed to come together with both governments and wider society to help understand the effects of online algorithms on what content is made available to users online.
Finally, it said, the process of international, multi-stakeholder internet governance should be open to evolution to ensure the ongoing presence of a single, unified internet.
“The internet is the most important infrastructure in the world. It is the world’s most powerful engine for social and economic growth. To realise its full potential, the internet of the future must be open, secure, trustworthy and accessible to all,” said Hall.
“The commission has built a roadmap towards ensuring the future of the internet. If the roadmap is adopted, the internet will continue to be civilisation’s most important infrastructure. If the roadmap is ignored, the internet’s power to build a better world will erode. The time to choose is now.”