Internet governance is defined as ‘the development and application by governments, the private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet’.

This definition, developed by the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), dates back to 2005, and has remained unchanged ever since. The Internet governance regime has continuously evolved since then, and is now a complex system involving a multitude of issues, actors, mechanisms, procedures, and instruments.

How did the Internet start?

The Internet started as a project sponsored by the US government: in the late 1960, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was developed with the aim to facilitate the sharing of digital resources among computers. With the invention of the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) in the mid-1970s, ARPANET network evolved into what is now known as the Internet. In 1986, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) was created and it managed the further development of the Internet through a cooperative, consensus-based decision-making process, involving a wide variety of individuals.

What was the DNS war?

In the early days of the Internet, there was no central government and no central planning to guide its evolution. But this decentralised approach began to change as governments and the private sector realised the importance of the Internet as a global network. In 1994, the US National Science Foundation, which at that time managed the key infrastructure of the Internet, decided to subcontract the management of the Domain Name System (DNS) to a private company – Network Solutions Inc. This move lead to the so-called DNS war, which also brought new players into the picture: international organisations and nation states. As a consequence, a new organisation was created in 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which became the coordinator of the main Internet technical resources.

Who defined Internet governance, and why?

The 2003–2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) officially placed the question of Internet governance on diplomatic agendas. Several controversies emerged at that point.

On the one hand, some countries wanted a restrictive definition of the term, to only refer to the technical management of critical Internet resources. Others were in favour of a broader definition, to cover policy issues such as e-commerce, spam, and cybercrime.

On the other hand, while several countries supported a private-sector led model of Internet governance, others argued that governments should be in charge of Internet governance, in the framework of an intergovernmental body such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

These controversies led to the creation of a multistakeholder Working Group on Internet Governance, which came up with the above definition of Internet governance. The definition was then accepted by participants in the second phase of WSIS (Tunis, 2005), and became part of the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society.

Internet governance or digital policy

Who are the Internet governance actors?

According to the definition, there is no single organisation ‘in charge of the Internet’, but the various stakeholders – governments, intergovernmental organisations, the private sector, the technical community, and civil society – share roles and responsibilities in shaping the ‘evolution and use’ of this network.

There are now multiple actors which are involved, in one way or another, in the governance of the Internet, and form the so-called Internet governance ecosystem: from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), Internet companies, and NGOs.

The Digital Watch observatory uses the following classification of Internet governance actors: academia/think tanks, business sector, civil society, governments, intergovernmental organisations, technical community, and international organisations. In some instances, the same actor fits under more that one stakeholder group.

Other terms: Digital policy, digital governance, cyber governance, Internet policy

More than 10 years after WSIS, the concept of ‘Internet governance’ remains open and prone to different interpretations.

In the public policy debate, other terms are used as well, such as digital policy, digital governance, cyber governance, and Internet policy. Most often, the terms are used interchangeably.

The question of different interpretations arises mainly in relation to the the scope of the term, i.e., which issues fall within its remit. Some argue, for example, that cybersecurity is part of Internet governance, while, for others, this is a separate field in its own. Some say that Internet governance is only about ICANN-related issues (management of domain names and IP addresses). Others extend the coverage of Internet governance to a wide set of Internet-related public policy issues.

The Digital Watch observatory uses ‘Internet governance’ and ‘digital policy’ as umbrella concepts, covering over 40 Internet public policy issues grouped into seven baskets: infrastructure, security, human rights, economic, development, legal, and sociocultural.