Elon University

Internet Governance Forum – USA, 2010 Review: Implications of Scenario Stories Discussions

IGF USA Banner LogoBrief description:

Earlier in the day at IGF-USA, participants divided into three groups to discuss potential-future scenarios for the Internet in 2020. At this session, moderators briefed the plenary crowd on the discussions and a panel of respondents weighed in with their observations. You can find the one-page descriptions of the proposed scenarios here.

Details of the session:

Moderators for the three futuristic scenarios presented for discussion earlier in the day recapped their respective sessions at the end of the IGF-USA conference. Their summations were followed by some observations from a final set of panelists representing business, academia, civil society and government who shared their perspectives on the different models.

The “Global Government for the Internet” Scenario:
Presented by Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice Coalition

This potential-future scenario described a world in which governments might take up citizens’ call to clean up the Internet after it has become dominated by crime and dangerous content.

The panelists and moderators determined a “perfect storm” might result from three factors: a loss of consumer trust in online content and e-commerce, business owners find they can no longer suffer the losses from fraud and lawsuits, and governments have proven themselves capable of successfully using electronic monitoring to halt terrorist attacks.

“Converge those forces together and it has people asking government to come in and take charge,” DelBianco said.

In a “global government” scenario there would likely be strict oversight of online content and e-commerce. There would be required biometric identification for online users, and online publishers would be liable for user-generated content and conduct. All users would have to apply for an “online license” to use the Internet.

The IGF-USA panelists and audience who discussed this potential scenario came to one conclusion: avoid this at all costs. Court systems raise complexity, the barriers raised by governmental control would block entry and innovation, the bad actors are likely to ignore new rules or find ways around them, the digital divide would probably widen and it is not likely that governments would possess the competency needed to manage a large network like the Internet.

While this scenario was found to be deplorable by people attending the IGF session, it also seemed all too plausible. Governmental control is already occurring to varying degrees in some areas of the world; for the most part, people are already no longer able to operate anonymously online; and good intentions to close the digital divide might be a force that could drive the change to this less-than-ideal outcome.

Delbianco Speaking IGF USA 2010Group members brainstormed ideas to avoid this scenario. They noted that government officials should simply enforce the existing laws and seek solutions without overreacting. They said the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) should involve more higher-level government representatives in its Governmental Advisory Committee.

They said people involved in the IGF process should continue to discuss Internet issues as they emerge and work with industry, government, civil society and technical groups on targeted solutions. And perhaps most importantly everyone has to recognize that the natural inclination of those in governments will always be to think that they have to regulate the Internet. They said this must be avoided when possible.

The “Internet Islands” Scenario:
Presented by Andrew Mack, principal of AMGlobal Consulting

In this scenario, subtitled “The Rise of Digital Fortresses and the End of the Digital Republic,” it was proposed that by 2020, corporate, government and individual entities will have established the means to fence off Internet Islands, keeping inhabitants safe within the fortified walls and keeping “dangerous” — and new — voices out.

Mack Speaking IGF USA 2010The small group of listeners and panelists who discussed this potential-future scenario pointed out that this is already a reality for the people online in some regions of the world and the leaders behind such “walled gardens” all claim to have legitimate reasons for the separation they maintain from the open Internet.

Discussants of this scenario said it is best to avoid a tipping point where we go from having a few scattered Internet islands to isolating nearly everyone in separate spaces online.

“The multi-stakeholder model is absolutely critical (to avoiding this),” said Leslie Martinkovics, director of international public policy and regulatory affairs for Verizon Communications.

The group described four types of islands: totalitarian, liberal, corporate and cultural. The discussants of this scenario also came to the conclusion that users appear to trust the private sector more than the government when it comes to their activities on the World Wide Web.

“There is a lot of trust in the private sector on the Web,” Mack said. “Even though we know in our heart of hearts they have shared information with government.”

Audience participants who discussed this scenario noted that non-governmental organizations will continue in their traditional role as bearing witness and representing those who are unable to represent themselves and they noted that NGOs also serve as an important resource for government and corporate entities.

The scenario discussants determined that the threat of making more Internet Islands can’t be solved by one group but instead it must be addressed by many organizations and entities.

They said the IGF should remain a place for open dialogue and it should not get into the business of making policies.

Other practical ideas discussants suggested to help prevent this sort of scenario included expanding regional participation, working to make meetings more substantive and promoting best practices.

The “Users Reign” Scenario:
Presented by Pablo Molina, CIO of Georgetown University Law Center

Molina Speaking IGF USA 2010This potential-future scenario anticipates that thanks to major breakthroughs in language translation and the proliferation of cheap easy-to-use mobile devices, billions more users begin to use the Internet — especially through social networking sites. And these new users become the people who are generating — and controlling — most of the content on the Internet.

Two words that filled the “Users Reign” session, Molina said, were “Facebook” and “privacy.” He added that other issues raised by the discussants of this future scenario included autonomy, identity, user-generated content, freedom of expression, censorship and editorial control.

This discussion group noted that the general public is not appropriately represented in Internet governance, directly or through intermediaries or via markets. They considered the idea that with billions more people coming online from developing nations that the Internet may change and they asked if Mandarin Chinese may become the dominant language. They said participants in the IGF process should focus on education, awareness and best practices.

They said a goal of 100,000 attendees, most in the virtual form, should be the target for the 2020 IGF. They said smart user engagement, including crowdsourcing and social research could be implemented to incorporate collective intelligence in the processes of IGF. And they added that those attendees should better represent the diversity of the users of the Internet.

Respondents comment on the scenario panel discussions

After the moderators of the three future-Internet scenarios presented information on their individual sessions, a panel of IGF-USA participants commented on their findings.

Panel Discussion Photo IGF USA 2010The group of respondents included Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC); Rebecca MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices and visiting fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University; Milton Mueller, professor at Syracuse University School of Information Studies; Michael J. Nelson, professor at Georgetown University; Phil Bond, president and CEO of TechAmerica; Leslie Martinkovics, director of international public policy and regulatory affairs for Verizon; Richard Beaird, senior deputy United States coordinator for international communications and information policy for the U.S. Department of State; and Kirsten Bennett, a communications fellow at Elon University and student research assistant for the Imagining the Internet Center.

Most of the respondents agreed that the most desirable future of the three scenarios presented is the one in which “users reign” on the Internet. They also agreed that the current trend is not headed in that direction.

They don’t see any of the scenarios as perfect, however. Bennett said while she finds personal value in her participation in popular social media and networking sites online there are some negatives that need to be addressed in the “users reign” model.

“You are broadcasting what you want people to think you are but you are not experiencing the world as you would have before the cameras were on,” Bennett said. “… (You) changed your personality. As soon as you put on that camera you’re acting.”

– Anna Johnson

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