In comparison with the other policy fields under study, governance of the Internet is a relatively new and still emerging policy field. The Internet lies at the heart of a rapidly emergent digital society, with far-reaching implications for human existence culturally, ecologically, economically, geographically, politically and psychologically. In just three decades this communications infrastructure has come to connect 4.0 billion regular users across the planet, some 52% of the world’s population. As such, the Internet stands as a remarkable instance of global cooperation.
With fellows at the Centre we wish to explore how this global communications infrastructure is governed, e.g. how, by whom, and in whose interests the rules and standards along which it operates are developed and put into practice. How do conflict, contestation and cooperation evolve around these rules (or the absence thereof) and their implementation?
Developments in the policy field of global Internet governance – sometimes also referred to as ‘cyber governance’ – raise all manner of questions related to the Centre’s research themes 'Global Cooperation and Polycentric Governance' and 'Pathways and Mechanisms of Global Cooperation'. Regarding polycentric governance, what does the case of the Internet suggest about the shape, promises and perils of new global governance regimes? Regarding pathways, through what channels and dynamics has global cooperation around the Internet unfolded?
Layers of the Internet to be studied
Three broad layers of the Internet might be distinguished in terms of global cooperation and governance: physical infrastructure; virtual infrastructure; and content. The first of these aspects relates to the governance of Internet hardware, in terms of root servers, cables, satellites, exchange points, firewalls, communication devices, etc. The second aspect covers the governance of Internet software, in terms of numbers and names (addresses on the Internet) and protocol parameters (technical standards that enable data movement in cyberspace). The third aspect involves global and transnational cooperation on the rules and standards that govern the information that flows through the Internet (text, images, sound, etc.), with associated questions of e-commerce, Big Data, freedom of speech, hate speech, terms and conditions of use, and so on. Some policy concerns run across the three layers: e.g. cybersecurity, data protection, human rights, intellectual property, and social stratification.
Global cooperation has been most intense around root servers, the Internet address system, and data transfer protocols. Without standardization and coordination on these matters a single global Internet would not be possible. Global cooperation is also notable in regard to some content issues and cross-cutting concerns, although many measures in these areas are unilateral, bilateral and regional, or governed by private social platforms and intermediaries.
Questions to be studied
We see various ways that the Internet can be an interesting case for global cooperation research:
(a) in terms of our thematic areas 'Global Cooperation and Polycentric Governance' and 'Pathways and Mechanisms of Global Cooperation'; and
(b) in terms of comparison with global governance in our other focal policy fields, namely, climate change, migration, and peacebuilding.
As regards 'Global Cooperation and Polycentric Governance', global cooperation around the Internet is marked by transscalarity (local-to-global agencies), transsectorality (public, private and hybrid bodies), diffuse sites, fluid arrangements, overlapping mandates, ambiguous hierarchies of decision-making, and the absence of a final arbiter. Major competition is observed between national and global sites as well as between private and public players. If operated well, polycentrism in global cooperation around the Internet could provide benefits including broad expertise, creativity, speed, adaptability, responsiveness, relevance and democracy. At the same time, polycentrism in global Internet governance raises challenges of retooling officials and citizens, navigating crowded institutional landscapes, negotiating cultural diversities, living with considerable incoherence and uncertainty, limiting duplication, securing compliance, checking capture by special-interests, fostering due access for all affected, and obtaining accountability.
As regards 'Pathways and Mechanisms of Global Cooperation', the Internet raises particular questions about the role of (self-propelling) technological development in global cooperation. In this case large-scale global cooperation has been imperative if the technology is to operate at a full transplanetary reach. In addition, global cooperation around the Internet has long had a major sponsoring state (the USA), which has with time withdrawn its active stewardship of the global regime. Also key for global cooperation around the Internet has been a transsectoral elite network (popularly called 'the multistakeholder community') which has interlinked engineers, governments, business, and civil society groups in regulatory forums. Capitalist forces likewise warrant particular attention, given the enormous strivings for surplus accumulation that have propelled the global Internet development. Various discursive forces seem to have facilitated global cooperation in respect of the Internet as well: e.g., around constructions of 'security', 'efficiency', 'multistakeholder', 'accountability', 'public interest' and 'human rights'. The role of pivotal – in some cases almost evangelically driven – individuals in the various technical, official, commercial, and activist sectors should not be underestimated.
Compared to other research initiatives active in this policy area, the distinctive contribution of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research lies in our focus on global cooperation around the Internet. Also unlike other research centres, we approach the Internet as a case of a broader issue (global cooperation), rather than as a sui generis problem. Also unique is the Centre’s systematic comparative approach, where global cooperation around the Internet is explored in relation to experiences from other issue areas (namely, climate change, migration and peacebuilding).
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