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Legitimacy and Pertinence:
the future role of the Internet Society

Before Christmas, the Internet Society (ISOC) invited the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) along with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and other organisations to take part in an International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) to discuss the extension of top level domain names. (See the draft specifications.) In early January '97, an exploratory mission of the Internet Society was in Geneva to evaluate the candidature of Geneva as host for INET '98. At the same time and in the same building, the ITU held its second preparatory meeting for Interactive '97. These two events sparked off the idea of the following article.

In trying to throw new light on a familiar situation, it can sometimes be instructive to compare the apparently incomparable. At first sight, the Internet Society (ISOC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) seem so different. Yet there are similarities and, at the same time, the differences between them are particularly instructive.

Both ISOC and the ITU are committed to spreading the use of a technological system world-wide. For one it is the Internet, for the other it is telecommunications. Both ISOC and the ITU are active in the harmonious growth of their respective technologies, essentially through standardisation processes. Both ISOC and the ITU are at a turning point in their history, where their pertinence and legitimacy are being challenged, albeit for different reasons. Both are obliged to rethink their role as their respective fields mutate in the rapid growth of the Global Information Society.

What role can an organisation like the Internet Society play in the development and governance of the Internet? Given the current context, how should the Internet Society develop in the near future?

Spreading the word

In its desire to spread the use of the Internet, the Internet Society has chosen an educational role which it carries out mainly through workshops for people from developing countries and for primary and secondary schools. The development workshop during INET (the annual ISOC conference), for example, has contributed considerably to providing the know-how necessary to establishing Internet connectivity in developing countries. On quite a different level, in an ISOC Chapter like the one in Geneva, help is provided to Internet newcomers through courses given by the "NewBie SIG".

As the Internet grows and develops, other organisations have joined the drive to spread Internet use, not the least of which has been the press. We are clearly very far from exhausting the need to encourage and help people use the Internet, yet this role will have to change in nature as more and more people begin to use the Internet leaving only the information poor outside. At the same time, the attitude adopted in spreading the good news can be problematic. It is rather difficult to be an ardent advocate of the Internet - as is necessary when confronted with considerable scepticism if not opposition - and at the same time raise questions about its legitimacy and its use. Yet this is one of the major challenges that faces the Internet Society: How to bring to the drive to get people to use the Internet a more critical attitude about the multiple uses the Internet is put to. Such an attitude would imply a shift of emphasis from questions of technology to those of usage.

Ensuring satisfactory growth and development

One of the questions that preoccupies some people about the Internet is whether or not it can go ungoverned. On the one hand, activist groups argue against government intervention. Whether they be liberals, evolutionist or anarchists, they believe that natural forces will ensure that things work out satisfactorily. On the other hand, those whose job has been to govern seek to impose their way of governing on what they see as a chaotic, if not dangerous world. Neither approach is satisfactory.

Clearly some form of regulation is necessary for the Internet. The question of standardisation is a good example. There could be no Internet without a common agreement on protocols like TCP/IP. The Internet Society has played a key role, though the IAB (Internet Architecture Board) and the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), in devising an open system whereby possible standards are proposed, discussed, tested and adopted by consensus. The informal nature of the Internet standards procedures has enabled the development of a very flexible approach to standardisation that makes it well adapted to a fast changing context. However, now that the Internet is seen as a potentially rewarding market, a number of large players tacitly challenge Internet related standards procedures either through market dominance and de facto standards or by setting up their own standardisation processes.

Another area requiring regulation is that of Internet domain names. When the Internet was limited to the States, legitimacy came from the American government which chartered out responsibility to a naming organisation (IANA) under the umbrella of ISOC. Now that the Internet has become increasingly international and moved from exclusively academic use to ever increasing commercial use, part of the problem, as far as domain names is concerned, springs from the position of those that claim that anybody should be able to create top level domain names and make money out of them. We won't address that issue here, but rather point to the questioning of ISOC's legitimacy that results from it. In reality, all the major commercial forces are present as corporate members of ISOC and people from these companies are active in the standardisation process within the IETF. However, legitimacy is as much a question of perception as it is of power. (See Models of governance?)

Meeting the challenge

To meet the challenge both in terms of legitimacy and pertinence in a changing world, there is no doubt that the Internet Society has to change. The following are suggestions how this might best be done:
  • Address social and cultural issues
    The Internet Society needs to extend its field of activities to address social and cultural issues related to the Internet, its use and development. Ideally this could be done through SIGs (special interest groups) in the local Chapters as well as through events like the yearly INET.
  • Develop local chapters
    If the Internet Society is to play a key role in the way the Internet is used it must put much more effort into the development of the local chapters and through them get even closer to grass-roots users. Such a development would add to ISOC's legitimacy, as the understanding of individual users' needs becomes a key asset in developing the Global Information Society.
  • Decentralise
    In this drive to get closer to Internet users, ISOC needs to take the Internet as a model, and radically decentralise its activities, changing its organisation accordingly and encouraging increased contact and collaboration horizontally between chapters.
  • Innovate in exchange and collaboration
    In its role as facilitator in the harmonious growth and development of the Internet, the Internet Society needs to innovate in finding new ways of working closely with other partners and sharing responsibilities with them.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: January 21st, 1997 - Last up-dated: January 21st, 1997