COVID-19 showed how essential the internet is, as people around the globe searched for critical health information, kept up with loved ones and worked remotely. All of this relied on an often unseen internet infrastructure, consisting of myriad devices, institutions, and standards that kept them connected.
But who governs the patchwork that enables this essential utility? Internet governance organizations like the internet Engineering Task Force develop the technical foundations of the internet. Their decisions are high stakes, and impact security, access to information, freedom of expression and other human rights. Yet they can only set voluntary norms and protocols for industry behavior, and there is no central authority to ensure that standards are implemented correctly. Further, while internet governance bodies are open to all sectors, they are dominated by the transnational corporations that own and operate much of the infrastructure. Thus our increasingly digital daily lives are defined by the interests of corporations, not of the public interest.
What’s in the Report
In this comprehensive, field-setting report published with the support of the Ford Foundation, Niels ten Oever, a postdoctoral researcher in internet infrastructure at the University of Amsterdam, unpacks and looks at the human consequences of these governance flaws, from speed and access to security and privacy of online information. The report details how these flaws especially impact those who are already subject to surveillance or structural inequities, such as an activist texting meeting times on WhatsApp, or a low-income senior looking for a vaccine appointment.
Crucially, the report offers recommendations to civil society, corporations, governments, and academics on how to align internet governance with the public interest, including calling on governance organizations to employ human rights impact assessments into the evaluations of norms and standards. The report reframes the internet user as a citizen with rights, not as customers to be bought and sold, and presses governance institutions to make the rights and impact on citizens and society central in the design, standardization, and operation of the internet.