A team of researchers in Canada and around the world is taking on what is perhaps the most important issue in the digital world – how the Internet should be governed.
Two of the world's leading think tanks will announce on Wednesday the launch of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, a two-year initiative to study and provide extensive policy recommendations on aspects of the world's most important communications network.
The project is a joint venture of the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, which was founded by billionaire and former BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie, and Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
Carl Bildt, Sweden's Minister of Foreign Affairs, will lead the commission, which is expected to have about 25 members.
"The rapid evolution of the Net has been made possible by the open and flexible model by which it has evolved and been governed. But increasingly this is coming under attack," Mr. Bildt said in a statement about the commission's launch. "Net freedom is as fundamental as freedom of information and freedom of speech in our societies."
To say the commission's mandate is sprawling would be an understatement. Broadly, the commission plans to study four areas – governance, innovation, digital rights and the risk of cyber-crime and digital warfare.
Within those areas, there are myriad issues. For example, the commission plans to study the potential tax implications of cloud computing – looking at whether large corporations may try to avoid paying taxes by filing paperwork in jurisdictions where their data may be located, but where the company itself is not.
Perhaps the single most important area of research for the commission over the next two years has to do with who runs the Internet. Currently, the Internet is governed in a "multi-stakeholder" model, but much of the network's core governance is done by entities residing within the United States or closely affiliated with Washington – chiefly, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which handled much of the Internet's technical infrastructure.
That model has been the subject of vehement challenge in recent years by emerging-market nations that represent the fastest-growing portion of the Internet's population. Countries such as China and Russia have agitated for a greater say in how the Internet is run, using forums such as the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations subgroup.
In the wake of revelations by Edward Snowden of widespread U.S. digital surveillance, some other countries, such as Brazil, have looked into the possibility of rerouting Internet traffic to try to avoid the U.S. entirely.
By taking on the issue of Internet governance, GCIG wades directly into these and other heated debates.
"The Internet, it's fair to say, could soon become a fragment, which is to say it could have several different regulatory systems in place and possibly different technical architectures," said Fen Osler Hampson, director of the global security program at CIGI and a member of the commission.
"This could create barriers to communications, barriers to commerce and barriers to the free flow of ideas."
Mr. Hampson said it is part of the commission's strategy to focus on those consequences – commerce and innovation – rather than simply frame the discussion of Internet governance in the increasingly polarized terms of national security.
"There has been what I would call a 'securitization' of the conversation Post-Snowden, where everything is seen through the prism of national security. We're trying to break through some of that and saying that some of these issues should be dealt with in a trade or investment or regulatory context.
"If everything is about national security, co-operation is going to be very difficult."