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Regional Strategies > Articles > The Governance Challenge: Creating a Smart and Secure Cyberspace >

The Governance Challenge: Creating a Smart and Secure Cyberspace

Madanmohan Rao reports from the "New Directions in Internet Policy" conference in Atlanta

The Internet is now becoming a mainstream medium for businesses, consumers and governments in most industrially advanced economies, and is making deep inroads in other societies as well. But the road is still bumpy when it comes to governance of basic infrastructure issues like domain name allocation, legal issues like intellectual property rights, national issues like anti-monopoly legislation, and commercial issues like taxation and spam.

How should such policies and guidelines be conceptualized and formulated? How can broad public participation and awareness be ensured in such decision making? And how can they be enforced internationally in a medium which spans global boundaries at the click of a mouse?

Policymakers, analysts, academics, business leaders and government officials from the US, Europe and Asia gathered in Atlanta recently for the "New Directions in Internet Policy" conference hosted by the Internet and Public Policy Project at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"Cyberspace is no longer a law-free zone, and a variety of initiatives and bodies are being launched to come up with policies and regulations for governing the Internet," said Wolfgang Kleinwaechter, a German policy specialist at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

These self-regulatory and co-regulatory initiatives range from multilateral institutes like the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), regional organizations like the European Union, task forces driven by groups like the G-8 nations or the ASEAN countries, private sector consortia like the Global Business Dialogue on e-Commerce, civil society organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and new structures like ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).

ICANN has charted new territory in the past by conducting global online elections for membership, according to Hans Klein, public policy professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT).

The underlying issues are quite complex in nature: for instance, how voting rights should be distributed democratically to individuals, institutes, countries, regions or even linguistic groups - and how digital certificates should then be used globally to ensure fair elections. But ICANN is also facing criticism for not opening up its governing structure enough.

Lessons can be drawn here from other globalised approaches to issues like telephone numbering systems and civil aviation, but there are significant differences as well. The challenge is that the Internet continues to move much faster than bureaucracy.

A good example here is the rapid expansion of the wireless Internet in regions like Asia and Europe; the wireless medium raises even more complex questions of privacy since wireless operators have unprecedented access to user location information and communications at any time.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks in the US, issues like security and privacy have come under even more scrutiny. The US government has allotted US$880 million for cyber-security research and education about cyber-terrorism. Many legislations seem to reveal that privacy may have to be compromised at times for security - but the challenge is to not violate civil liberties at the same time.

"An enormous range of vulnerabilities opens up with the rapid expansion of the Internet, which was never really designed with security considerations at the outset. International cooperation is necessary on the security front to detect and thwart computer crime," said Seymour Goodman, security policy specialist at GIT.

But many governments are not technologically equipped to handle such threats, and the cooperative legal frameworks are far away from practical reality.

"At the same time, governments should not be allowed to violate civil and other liberties, but it is difficult to harmonise such definitions across countries," Goodman said.

"Significant differences are also emerging between the US and the European Union in dealing with such governance issues. Europe, for instance, has stricter laws about protecting consumer privacy," said Massimo Mauro, EU Fellow from Italy at the University of Texas at Austin.

"We need effective oversight mechanisms to check potential government excesses in surveillance and security," advised US Congressman Bob Barr, citing as examples the FBI's Carnivore program for 'sniffing' Internet traffic as well as physical instances like the presence of cameras on streetcorners in Arizona, California and Washington DC.

Other kinds of self-governance issues arise with respect to adoption of standardized language codes and fonts (which is still a challenge for many Asian languages in countries like India), parental control of children's access to cyberspace, spectrum management for the wireless Internet, development of markup languages for Web-based communication and document exchange in industry verticals, and policies for overcoming the digital divide.

Such divides certainly exist in developing countries, but also appear in some US cities like Atlanta, said Jabari Simama, who manages community technology operations at the office of the mayor of Atlanta.

The city of Atlanta is home to prominent global brands like CNN, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, UPS, and Holiday Inn - but is also one of the most racially segregated cities in the US. To deal with the looming digital divide, the mayor's office has launched the Internet Bus program whereby Internet services are provided to some poor neighbourhoods via special buses fitted with computers and wireless Internet access.

"If governments want to operate online, they have some obligations to get their citizens online," said Charles Brownstein of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives in Virginia. And on the privacy level, countries like the US also need to create a "privacy protection board" where citizens can get assistance on personal privacy issues.

To improve skills, competencies and knowledge capacity in dealing with such issues, numerous universities around the world are launching special Internet studies programs and degrees, drawing on interdisciplinary strengths in technology, communications, business, policy, international relations, and social studies.

Starting in 1999, Internet studies programs have been launched at the University of Washington, Yale, Minnesota, Curtin, Brandeis, Oxford and Vienna. A three-university consortium called the Internet Political Economy Forum (www.ipef.org) has also been formed to globalise Internet studies, by the University of Cambridge in the UK, National University of Singapore, and the University of Washington in the US.

One such example of an interdisciplinary focus area is bringing the telecom, cable, content and policymaking players together to grow the broadband infrastructure and ensure interoperability and universal access in the US, according to Rex Hughes, co-founder of the Center of Internet Studies at the University of Washington.

And while the Internet can be a superb medium for the publishing and exchange of scientific research, care must be taken to ensure that online scientific publishing maintains its integrity while also being accessible to scientists and students in all countries, said Jean-Claude Gideon, professor at the University of Montreal.

"Publishers' digital packaging strategies are having increasing impacts on the research, academic publication, and development process - for instance, online researchers will find it easier to cite research that is published online as well," he said.

In sum, the rapid pace of technology innovation in the world of the wired and wireless Internet call for increasing governance capacity among social, educational and political organizations to create an equitable and safe knowledge society.


The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com


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