The internet is a world in and of itself, home to budding virtual communities, a wealth of knowledge, and immense power for growth and exploration. However, with the internet comes a desire to establish global norms and regulations in governing the space, manifesting in a multistakeholder approach based on principles determined by the international community. These governance mechanisms are instituted for safety but also for access and human rights. NetMundial summarizes internet governance principles, citing the following seven criteria as the means for approaching internet governance:
- Human rights and shared values
- Protection of intermediaries
- Culture and linguistic diversity
- Unified and unfragmented space
- Security, stability and resilience of the internet
- Open and distributed architecture
- Enabling environment for sustainable innovation and creativity
Initiatives and organizations like NetMundial, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Internet Society (ISOC), and even the Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID) at its conception are (were) all dedicated to upholding this multistakeholder, collaborative approach grounded in variations of the aforementioned seven internet governance principles. Yet, this multistakeholder approach is arguably limited due to the demonstrated disparities and inequalities that manifest in access to the internet. There are essential divides that contribute to inequalities in access, ranging from general competency to geographic location, divides which have been observed in previous reports like “Falling Through the Net” published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Maitland Report from the International Telecommunication Union. Thus, more information is needed about how these organizations and initiatives have acknowledged these digital divides and continue to recognize them in pursuing their multistakeholder approach.
One particularly compelling example of this is the introduction of the “dynamic coalitions” under the Internet Governance Forum. These coalitions seek to bring a higher level of collaboration and knowledge sharing between key stakeholders in internet governance and vulnerable or underrepresented populations by creating an interactive body for idea sharing and knowledge exchange on key issues. They specifically draw upon private sector, civil society, and technical experts to inform their work. Coalitions such as the Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity (DC3) and the Dynamic Coalition on Innovative Approaches to Connecting the Unconnected (DC-Connecting the Unconnected) are tackling these digital divide issues head-on. DC3 seeks to foster “community networks”, creating sustainable and affordable internet access mechanisms at the local level while DC-Connecting the Unconnected looks at targeted approaches and strategies for increasing internet access, specifically in Asia and Africa where the divides are argued to be most prevalent.
Programs such as there are crucial in establishing an international governance mechanism for the internet, given that approaches are defined by a collaborative, unified, diverse, and open exchange between stakeholders. This includes those who have “fallen through the net.” A failure to include vulnerable populations creates a fundamental contradiction in the process. According to World Bank data from 2016 for the percent of individuals using the internet, approximately 45% of the population has access to and utilizes the internet. (It should be noted that these numbers may have changed given their groundings in 2016 statistics.)Without a multistakeholder approach that recognizes and acts in accordance with these statistics, over 50% of the world’s population would be excluded from the internet, their opinions being unheard according to the World Bank study. In an age where the internet is conceived as a human right, the exclusion of over half the population is a fundamental contradiction to the very principles that inform internet governance. This is not to say international initiatives and organizations are ignorant to this inequality, in fact they are not as demonstrated in mechanisms like the dynamic coalitions. However, careful attention must be paid to how officials can continue to diversify and open internet governance processes to the groups that traditionally haven’t been heard but must be in order to create the internet of global stakeholders conceived as equal, open, and rooted in human rights, stability, and freedom.