An elite international group meets in Ottawa this week with the self-appointed task of solving one of the greatest challenges of an increasingly digitizing world: how to prevent the Internet from becoming the "splinternet."
"There is no guarantee the entire world will do what we recommend … but I'm quite certain that we're going to have a significant impact," said former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who chairs the 29-member Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) formed early this year by two independent think tanks, Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and Chatham House, based in the United Kingdom. CIGI was created in 2001 by then-Research In Motion Ltd. co-CEO Jim Balsillie.
The group includes an array of political leaders and mandarins such as Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of the U.S. Department Homeland Security, Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, as well as leading global academics, business leaders and social justice activists.
The Ottawa meetings on Monday and Tuesday are the third in a series of international gatherings since the group formed in January with a mandate to deliver policy recommendations for the future of Internet governance by early 2016. The group is motivated by the aim of preserving as much of the Internet's largely free, unfettered, unregulated and decentralized qualities as possible.
"The system of governance has been working amazingly well during a period where the Internet has gone from an obscure academic thing to probably the most important infrastructure of the global economy," said Mr. Bildt.
But there are growing concerns the current system could devolve into a balkanized patchwork where more conventional state boundaries emerge to create a series of closed internets, impeding the growth of electronic commerce and restricting freedoms that have marked the early decades of the Internet. Such restrictions have already shown up in China, Russia, Syria and Iran, as well as a move in early 2011 by Egyptian authorities to shut off the country's Internet access at the start of the Arab Spring protests.
"The Internet is a powerful tool for free expression and the advancement of human rights and democracy," said John Baird, Canada's foreign minister, who is meeting with the group during its visit to Canada at the government's invitation. "We welcome the work of this commission and its timely contribution to the future of the Internet."
But even leaders of the free world, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been so spooked by revelations of widespread U.S. cyberspying, they have talked about closing off regional Internet networks or running underwater cables directly from South America to Europe to bypass the U.S. and avoid the prying eyes of its National Security Agency.
"We're at a fork in the road," said Laura DeNardis, a professor at American University who heads the commission's research efforts. "We can't take for granted which direction that will go. Will we have an Internet that is universal or fragmented by national boundaries? That is a really important question." It's not an exaggeration to say [the issue] is on par with" other global issues such as human rights and global warming.
The commission is reviewing a raft of Internet-related issues, from cybercrime and freedom of expression to taxation and transfer pricing. But a key item on this week's agenda is the future of the system for assigning Internet domain names and addresses globally. For the past 16 years, the California-based non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has performed that task and other technical functions supporting the operation of the Internet under contract from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Last March, the U.S. said it would give up its role of overseeing the important Internet functions by next fall. It's not yet clear which organization will take on that stewardship role, but U.S. officials have stated it won't go to a state-affiliated body or multilateral organization like the United Nations.
At the Ottawa meetings, commissioners will review a new research paper co-written by former ICANN president and GCIG commissioner Paul Twomey, that "charts … a realistic path forward" for the hand-off of the U.S. government's stewardship of ICANN, said GCIG commissioner Fen Hampson, former director of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
Neither he nor Ms. DeNardis would disclose the contents of the report, but the commission is expected to release its views in the coming weeks if its members reach a consensus. "Since the clock is ticking on the transition, what we're trying to do is put forward some very constructive concrete ideas on that particular issue," said Mr. Hampson.