Just last week, organisers announced that the North African Forum on Internet Governance will be held in Tripoli this coming May, as part of the region’s attempt to engage various key internet governance stakeholders in dialogue. The event is well-timed: one of the most important topics of 2023 – even if it may fly under the radar for most people – is the future of the Internet.
Chief among the thornier issues is the increasingly fragmented nature of the web, which is nowhere more apparent than in the divergent approaches to Internet governance.
The perspectives on Internet governance espoused by many Western countries and international bodies like the UN, which emphasize collaboration, consensus and collective decision-making, are clashing with the authoritarian stance adopted by countries where censorship is commonplace.
Cracks in the net
A sizeable majority of Internet users likely take its cooperative, cohesive and interconnected structure for granted—unsurprising given that the web has hitherto operated on a fluid but fairly consistent framework of multistakeholder participation and agreement. Nonetheless, significant cracks in that status quo have emerged in recent years.
For one thing, Internet liberties have taken a concerning turn for the worse. According to research conducted by Freedom House, global internet freedom declined for the 12th year running, with over three-quarters of all users now living in fear of governmental repercussions for expressing their opinions online.
The case of a Rwandan YouTuber being sentenced to 15 years in prison for perceived dissidence is one of the more headline-grabbing stories, but it’s sadly far from an isolated incident. Indeed, almost two-thirds (64%) of the worldwide population live in places where people have been attacked and even killed for their online behaviour in the last 18 months alone.
At the same time, the West is contributing to the further splintering of the Internet in their own way. While measures such as geo-blocking and online safety controls championed by Western countries are naturally not comparable to the crackdowns, blackouts and censorship practiced by rogue states, they nevertheless further fuel the fragmentation of the web.
New stakeholders fighting for an open web
Some policy measures implemented by Western governments—coming even as they espouse rhetoric in favor of an open internet—have come under criticism for their exclusionary approach.
The recently published Declaration on the Future of the Internet, for example, which was signed by 60 governments, was met with accusations that drafters had not adequately consulted with key stakeholders including the Global South, NGOs, and the private sector. Perhaps ironically, it’s exactly this overlooked community that is now stepping up to the plate.
Lu Heng is one of the most prominent figures leading this charge. A true global citizen, the Chinese-born, Dutch-educated entrepreneur now based in Hong Kong and the UAE, he sees the Internet as a truly worldwide tool, the accessibility and universality of which are sacrosanct.
With a background in economics, business and finance, Lu Heng has been among the most outspoken on the subject of Internet Governance, intent on not only learning about its possible future but trying to shape it actively. His work has since won him nominations for the Executive Council of the Asia Pacific Network Information Center (APNIC) and an advisory role on the Pacific Telecommunications Council (PTC).
He launched LARUS in 2016, which offers a far-ranging suite of services focused on IP address leasing, brokerage, management, and education. Shortly afterward, the non-profit LARUS Foundation was established in 2019 with the goal of helping young talent and thinkers on internet governance issues to pursue careers in the field, as well as in policymaking. Through this engagement, the growth of new internet governance entrepreneurs is fostered, leading to a more diverse voice fighting for a multi-stakeholder, global online environment.
Naturally, Lu Heng is not the only one actively involved in shaping better internet governance for the future. For example, internet governance pioneer and forward thinker Kieren McCarthy has called for an independent action review body that allows those fighting for an open and globally compatible internet to “take advantage of expertise that does not exist within its ranks.” Such a body should establish working procedures, be fully independent and draw from reliable experience without conflicts of interest.
The result would be an advisory-only organization capable of providing objective advice on process improvements and “timely feedback mechanism within a complex and fast-moving industry”- all of which are crucial if the future development of the internet is to be guided with clarity and objectivity. Perhaps most importantly, McCarthy believes these new structures to be pathways for new potential governance leaders outside of the current corporate or UN bubbles, equally representing the overcoming of current impasses such as resistance to change and lack of strategic direction.
A better internet
The efforts of Lu Heng, Kieren McCarthy and others are arriving just as the Internet approaches a crucial juncture in its history. Bodies like UNESCO are well aware of the importance of flexibility and sensitivity when dealing with issues like “multi-stakeholderism”; a recent report underlined both the boons that can come of enacting legislation aimed at installing it, as well as the ills which may arise when the system upon which it relies is abused.
Addressing threats to global Internet openness and governance will be one of the most defining objectives of the next decades. New ideas and organization must be created to help divert power away from authoritarian regimes intent on abusing it for suppressive and regressive policies (and into the hands of the individual users which are most affected by them), instead encouraging diversity, collaboration – such as through the Internet Global Governance Forum (IGF) or regional events like the North African Forum on Internet Governance – sharing of knowledge across the world. And if that’s not what the Internet was created for in the first place, what is?