The potential of the internet continues to be realized as a direct result of the principles of openness that governed its very inception and early development. The idea that any person can have access to the free exchange of information, ideas, and data has created the connectivity framework that enables today’s rich innovative culture. However, the openness many people in the world enjoy today is not enjoyed unilaterally, and even in “free” nations, open internet is not a long-term guarantee.
Google’s Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Vinton G. Cerf, recently authored an article in WIRED Magazine called “How to Save the Net: Keep it Open.” In the article, Cerf asserts “the premise of openness is at risk—because it threatens the very concept of sovereign national borders that was established in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia.” In short, the treaty reinforces the rights of nations to restrict and regulate the open internet.
Many governments are discussing, or have already implemented, restricted access and limit select types of content. China and other nations tightly control public access to the web. In the wake of NSA revelations, some nations are examining ways to create their own, secure national internets, including Iran. However, geopolitical concerns aren’t the only threat to open access; the influence of political and trade concerns can be equally powerful, as Cerf points out:
“For example, new top-level domain names like .vin and .wine have led to major complaints by France, Spain, and Portugal over who may properly register second-level domain names such as champagne,” Cerf shared in his article with Wired. “If internet governance policy gets mixed up with trade policy, one might see attempts to exchange internet openness for some adjustment in a tariff barrier or other political accommodation. Such disputes come and go, but if they produce uncertainty about connectivity, they could erode motivation for investing in internet businesses and infrastructure.”
According to Cerf, it’s critical to protect the free and open internet by taking responsibility now to develop governance methods that incorporate the principles of openness. The U.S. has shown support for this movement by offering to entrust oversight and policy development to Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), who, Cerf says is “a private-sector, nonprofit, multi-stakeholder organization, which was originally established in 1998 for precisely this purpose.” Such a move clearly advocates for the value to society of maintaining an open and accessible internet. At the very least, Cerf hopes that this would set an example for other stakeholders to follow, moving forward.