If you are an Internet user, you will soon become an Internet citizen. This week, at an international meeting in Morocco, an independent body is expected to be given the authority to represent all “stakeholders” in cyberspace – all billions of them. In democratic fashion, this supranational agency will guide the largely intangible universe of bits and bytes that now distributes information and ideas to anyone online.
The body being handed this unearthly task is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. The nonprofit organization currently assigns only domain names, such as .com or .org. Its new and far more powerful duties will be a novel experiment in how to manage a global resource like the web and its complex digital plumbing.
The novelty lies in this: National governments, whether elected or authoritarian, will have little or no influence over the new agency, which will be headed by a 16-member board held accountable to users. Other global regulatory bodies, such as the International Telecommunications Union, are controlled by governments.
The reason to keep governments at arm’s length comes out of the nature of the Internet itself. The technology allows equality across all humanity. And the web has succeeded largely because of an inherent goodwill among most users to treat one other as they want to be treated.
Those ideas are foundational integrity of any democratic “society” like the Internet. They are based on a view of the individual as capable of self-government. Reflecting this view, ICANN will operate day to day with a consensus of its committees that represent users from civil society to the industry that builds and maintains the web’s hardware. Its founding constitution will create an elaborate system of checks and balances, including an independent judiciary.
The United States, which was the Internet’s original steward and has maintained a loose control over its infrastructure, is expected to hand over its remaining powers this September. The US began the process of privatizing ICANN in 1998.
The body is not charged with solving the big challenges facing the Internet, such as cyberattacks and piracy of intellectual property. Governments still have a role in solving these problems. But ICANN’s launch as guardian of the Internet’s infrastructure marks progress in human thinking about self-governance and the social contract needed to sustain it.