Who's who in the debate on Internet governance? The global reach of the Internet makes it unique in terms of technology and influence, and it's ability to transcend national boundaries presents challenges for governance.

“The point of open standards is not ‘one size fits all.’ In fact, it’s completely the opposite. It’s ‘What is the minimum we need to agree on in order to be able to talk to each other?'”

The above quote was delivered by former Internet Society CIO (now co-chair of IANAPlan working group) Leslie Daigle at the GCIG Conference held at Columbia University this past May. The conference, paneled by technologists, academicians, and industry experts, featured thoughtful discussion regarding present and future practices of governance on the Internet. One of the primary lines of inquiry that wove itself throughout the discussion was that of unity versus uniformity: as the Internet continues to grow into new and developing markets, and more and more IP-based applications become incorporated into our lives, what is the best strategy to preserve the usefulness of the net?

To put it quite simply, there seem to be two basic schools of thought surrounding the aforementioned question. The perspective held by the first school of thought is that the robust growth of the Internet necessitates intervention and legislation in order to keep web activity safe, legal, and controllable. The second school of thought maintains that the growth and equity of the Internet depends on non-interventionist approaches to development and that openness is essential for the utility of the web to remain intact.

So who’s who in the debate on Internet governance? Daigle cited two pieces of legislation that were introduced in 2011 (SOPA and PIPA) as misguided efforts of the United States government to confront the problem of digital piracy and copyright violation. While these are not unworthy goals in their own right, Daigle said, the act of surrendering the control and technology of the Internet to the government would almost certainly have deleterious effects on the innovation of the web. Daigle points to the breadth of technologies and applications that may now be considered a part of the Internet family and suggests that the very openness of the web is what makes it so powerful. “No matter where you connect to [the Internet], you’re connecting to the same Internet; whether you’re connecting from somewhere in Africa or right here in downtown New York City.”

Truly, the global reach of the Internet makes it unique in terms of technology and influence, and it’s ability to transcend national boundaries does present some challenges for staid conceptions on governance.”This challenge between policy and technology is the fact that the ease of interaction between people across the globe is challenging our whole understanding of what it means to be a part of a culture or a part of a nation.” said Daigle. “And that’s not the problem. The problem is we need to find ways to get our policy approaches to grow up to that fact. To grow up to the fact that what it means to be a citizen of this planet is evolving.”

Dailge’s admittedly grandiose language may indeed point to a fundamental issue regarding Internet governance: the Internet is different than almost any other utility or service. Panel moderator and Columbia Business School professor Eli Noam suggested that the Internet should be viewed in the same way one might conceive of a municipal good such as water or electricity, which are controlled and regulated by a centralized authority. But rather, it would be more appropriate to think of Internet governance in terms of the UN model, with entrepreneurs, tech companies, and industry innovators playing the role of delegates.

One of the basic tenets upon which most of the panelists seemed able to agree is that innovation depends on openness. This would not be an openness that is entirely without structure, of course, because the power of the Internet is in its capacity for collaboration and interoperability. Interoperability requires agreement on standards of operation and this brings us back to our opening quote from Daigle, “What is the minimum we need to agree on in order to be able to talk to each other?”