While we take the Internet for granted as an essential part of everyday life, decisions are being made behind the scenes that affect its future and the lives of everyone who relies on it. Net users are like players in a game where the rules are unknown and can change at any time. Decisions are made by technologists, government regulators and legislators, nonprofits and civil society groups -- with a great deal of influence by special interests -- far from public view or understanding.
The recent announcement by Department of Commerce that the United States would relinquish part of its controlling role in managing the Internet Domain Name System(DNS), although long in the offing, was accelerated by fears of US control of the Net in the wake of recent NSA spying scandals.
The DNS essentially controls real estate in cyberspace by translating a human-understandable domain name like "google.com" to an Internet Protocol (IP) address that computers understand.
In October 2013 leaders of organizations responsible for coordination of the Internet technical infrastructure globally met in Montevideo, Uruguay, to consider current issues affecting the future of the Internet. In the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation they expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance. They also called for accelerating the globalization of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) who manage the DNS, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.
On March 14, 2014 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community. NTIA asked ICANN, as the IANA functions contractor and the global coordinator for the DNS, to convene a multistakeholder process to develop a proposal for the transition. In addition, NTIA explicitly stated that it would not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.
That fear of repressive government control of the Net also inspired three bills, H.R. 4342 (ih) - Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters Act of 2014, H.R. 4367 (ih) - Internet Stewardship Act of 2014 and H.R. 4398 (ih) - Global Internet Freedom Act of 2014 to be introduced to the US Congress to prevent or delay the transition.
Supporters of the transition say critics betray their lack of understanding of Net governance with the proposed legislation. Several human rights and civil liberties groups supporting the transition wrote a letter arguing that the move would actually be preemptive and would sustain the current multi-stakeholder model.
The 800 pound gorilla in the room is ICANN itself which has been criticized for lacking transparency and accountability. Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project writes:
When the U.S. Commerce Department announced that it would end its control of the domain name system root, it called upon ICANN to "convene the multistakeholder process to develop the transition plan." Many people worried about ICANN's ability to run a fair process. As an organization with a huge stake in the outcome, there were fears that it might try to bias the proceedings. ICANN has a very strong interest in getting rid of external oversight and other dependencies on other organizations.
It was in this environment that the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (who herself was a victim of NSA spying) organized the NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance which was co-sponsored by ICANN. Concurrently with the conference, she signed the Marco Civil da Internet, a bill that sets out new guidelines for freedom of expression, net neutrality and data privacy.
Wired UK compared NETmundial to a game:
To set the scene for a Brazilian meeting over internationalising the internet, we compare the little-known world of internet governance with the greatest spectacle in football
As Brazil gears up to host the 2014 World Cup, another world game is gathering pundits and crowds. Far from the flashy arena, this other contest is over Internet governance. It's about how, and by whom, the paradigmatically 'unowned' internet is managed.
Quietly waged by smooth corporate strategists, diplomats, and tech-geeks, the fight over net governance goes to the heart of global politics and economics. The bets, most curiously, run close to those in football. Brazil and Germany are leading the charge, with several other European and South American teams as potential challengers. The big question is whether they can nudge perennial football underdog and undisputed internet champion, the United States, from the top spot.
The analogy between Internet policy and games is not new or inaccurate - in 2007 Google hired game theorists to assist in their strategy in an FCC auction for wireless spectrum.
Like any other game with winners and losers, there was disappointment in the outcome of NETmundial.