The challenges of Internet governance


To understand Internet governance challenges, it is important to have a clear idea of the main technical principles.

The Internet is a communication network made up of millions of networks, owned and operated by various stakeholders. It connects these networks to each other and facilitates the overall exchange of information. Hundreds of stakeholders have been involved in the design and regulation of the Internet, including governments, international organizations, companies, and technical committees among many others.

The end-to-end principle, a central concept of the architecture of the Internet should be highlighted. Instead of installing intelligence at the heart of the network, the Internet puts it at its extremities.

All of these technical specificities explain why the Internet is governed at different levels:

Tech bodies

Many bodies are working on the Internet’s infrastructure, including:

  • The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) whose mission is to “help ensure a stable, secure and unified global Internet”.
    Internet addresses have to be unique so computers know where to find each other. ICANN coordinates these unique identifiers across the world. It is a not-for-profit partnership of people from all over the world. Also, there are registries of regional and national domain names, such as AFNIC, which is responsible for all domains that end in “.fr”.
  • The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is an open working group of developers charged with establishing Internet standards.
  • The Internet Society (ISOC) was founded by the first Internet pioneers, which gives it moral and technical legitimacy. It is a non-profit organization founded in the United States and acts as a type of superstructure for the IETF and other structures. The ISOC is committed to “promoting the open development, evolution and use of the Internet”. It has national chapters, including ISOC FRANCE, nearly everywhere in the world.

Other committees and working groups are also working on technical standards and meetings, for example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C mainly focuses on improving technologies and the format of HTML code used in websites.

Private companies

Companies also help shape the Internet and its rules. For example, many web services and social networks have established “terms and conditions” or “terms of use” for services. These terms govern what a user is authorized to do or not authorized to do when accessing the services offered on a given platform.
Telecommunications providers and other service providers manage the data flow infrastructure, data centres, and international undersea cables via main lines called backbones.

Alongside public authorities and civil society, companies can work together to implement specific overall rules and processes. An example of this is the Christchurch Call to Action, whereby governments and digital technology giants have committed for the first time to taking a series of concrete measures to eliminate terrorist and extremist content online and putting a stop to the instrumentalization of the Internet by terrorists.

Many countries working in the Internet economy are also structured around professional associations or think tanks in order to promote their interests in the institutional field and among the general public. For example, France Digitale, The Galion Project and Syntec Numérique, just to name a few.

Governments and government agencies

National governments shape Internet rules in several ways. One of the most visible examples are laws on specific domains, drawn up by national parliaments or European institutions.

Agencies are also involved in applying and monitoring rules concerning the Internet. For example, the National Commission on Data Processing and Liberties (CNIL) is the regulator of personal data. It assists professionals in their compliance and helps individuals take control of their personal data and exercise their rights.

Governments are represented on advisory boards of bodies such as ICANN or the Internet Governance Forum.

Civil society

The term “civil society” refers to structures such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or foundations. Civil society influences the regulation or self-regulation of the Internet through awareness-raising campaigns, participation in policy making processes, and the search for common values relating to new technologies and applications.

Many civil society initiatives focus on access to information and knowledge or cooperative products on the Internet. Open source initiatives such as the Open Source Initiative and the Free Software Foundation aim to promote software licences that enable users to access, use and freely change the code, while Mozilla Foundation promotes the Firefox browser among other things, and the Wikimedia Foundation supports the Wikipedia project.

International organizations

Both international general and specialized institutions are involved in shaping and regulating the Internet.

Institutions dependent on the United Nations

  • The Internet Governance Forum (IFG) stemmed from a United Nations resolution. The United Nations General Assembly also addressed governance of the Internet in its resolutions on privacy in the digital age and international cyber security, for example.

The United Nations Secretariat-General gave France the key role of coordinating and inspiring a working group on artificial intelligence issues. This work is in line with the Age of Digital Interdependence Report issued by the United Nations on 10 June 2019, which puts forward new ideas for international collaboration in the digital world.

  • The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) focuses on technical specifications in the telecommunications sector, for example, for the 5G standard.

Other international organizations work in their own area of activity on regulations that directly or indirectly concern the Internet. One example are the trade rules governed by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Updated: March 2020