Governance of the Internet

Policy Field Research

In the second funding period, research staff and fellows at the Centre explored global governance of the Internet as one of four focal policy fields. The Internet lies at the heart of a rapidly emergent digital society and now connects 5.4 billion regular users worldwide, with far-reaching implications for human existence culturally, ecologically, economically, geographically, politically and psychologically. As such, the Internet stands as a remarkable instance of global cooperation. Research at the Centre examined how this global communications network is governed: with what rules, through what policy processes, by whom, and for what purposes. Our studies also considered how conflict, contestation, and cooperation evolve around these rules (or the absence thereof).

The Centre’s research focused on three broad layers of the Internet: physical infrastructure; virtual infrastructure; and content. The first of these aspects relates to the governance of Internet hardware (including cables, satellites, exchange points, communication devices, etc.). In this area, our research especially explored the role of states, as well as concerns about cybersecurity (e.g. hardware as a target in war) and human rights (e.g. around Internet firewalls and shutdowns). The second aspect covers the governance of technical standards that enable Internet communications, such as the domain name system (DNS), the Internet Protocol (IP) numbering regime, and other standards that enable the transfer of data on the Internet. In this area, we especially examined multistakeholder governance at ICANN (the Internet Cooperation for Assigned Names and Numbers). The third aspect involves global and transnational cooperation around rules to govern the information that
flows through the Internet (text, images, sound, etc.) with associated questions of e-commerce, Big Data, privacy, freedom of speech, hate speech, and terms and conditions of use. Research projects in respect of this layer were both conceptual (in terms of polycentric digital data governance) and substantive (with regard to intellectual property, social media content, blockchain, etc.).

Overall, the Centre’s research highlighted that global cooperation around the Internet is marked by transscalarity (i.e. processes on local-to-global levels), transsectorality (i.e. public, private and hybrid bodies), diffuse sites, fluid arrangements, overlapping mandates, ambiguous hierarchies of decision-making, and the absence of a final arbiter. Governance competition was observed between national and supranational sites as well as private and public players. Also key for global cooperation around the Internet has been a transsectoral elite network (popularly called ‘the multistakeholder community’) which interlinks 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 development of the global Internet. Global cooperation in Internet governance has been most intense around the virtual infrastructure. 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, although many measures in this area are unilateral, bilateral, and regional by governments or governed by private social platforms and intermediaries. The vast number of actors in Internet governance leads to many divergences in Internet governance. Possibilities and limitations of state control in Internet governance also presents a challenging field of research.

Key publications:

  • Aguerre, Carolina, Campbell-Verduyn, Malcolm and Scholte, Jan Aart (2024) (eds). Global Digital Data Governance: Polycentric Perspectives, Routledge Global Cooperation Series, Abingdon, Oxon/ New York, NY: Routledge, forthcoming.
  • Haggart, Blayne, Tusikov, Natasha and Scholte, Jan Aart (2021) (eds). Power and Authority in Internet Governance: Return of the State?, Routledge Global Cooperation Series, Abingdon, Oxon/ New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Jongen, Hortense and Scholte, Jan Aart (2021). ‘Legitimacy in Multistakeholder Global Governance at ICANN’, Global Governance, 27(2): 298–324.
  • Quack, Sigrid and Scholte, Jan Aart (2022) (eds). ‘Unity and Diversity in Global Internet Governance’, Special Issue: Global Cooperation Research – A Quarterly Magazine, 2022(2–3), available at: https://www.gcr21.org/publications/gcr/gcr-quarterly-magazine/global-cooperation-research-2-3-/-2022