How to Address Cross-Border Internet Conflicts

The Internet has facilitated advancements in the way we communicate, conduct business, and create marketplaces for innovation. For decades, sovereign nations have worked collaboratively, and data has flowed across nations borders. But in recent years, this model has been in jeopardy. The Internet is quickly risking becoming a “balkanized” platform – or one where nations create contradicting policies leading to conflicts around operability across borders, increased cyber threats, and questions of jurisdiction.

A recent report by the Internet Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), “Beyond Internet Universalism: A Framework for Addressing Cross-Border Internet Policy,” presents a policy framework that helps to avoid the balkanization of the Internet. “What we are really trying to do [in the report] is compartmentalize different issues, and highlight the reasons that some policies are bad ideas and others good,” said Daniel Castro, Senior Analyst, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and co-author of the report.

To help policy makers create good policies, ITIF created a flow chart that helps leaders consider what kinds of issues should be collaborative, and which issues are challenges to sovereign nation policy. “We show what kinds of questions policy makers should be asking, especially about other country’s policies,” said Castro. “They are fairly simple questions: is the policy affecting architecture? Is it affecting people outside the country borders? Is it something that is in alignment or contradicts with existing international agreements that were assigned? Or, is this something that requires international consensus or not? By looking at different issues and seeing where they fall, you see that the reasons why we are constantly in conflict, and others why we are not.”

It’s easy to imagine why there is so much conflict around Internet policy. Internet policy determines everything from basic technical architecture to how content is distributed over networks. Even within borders, there is great disparity on how the Internet should be governed, and these issues only grow in complexity on a global scale.

“While some cyber-libertarians mistakenly believe the Internet is and should be a lawless land of virtual anarchy, the reality is that the Internet, like all other technologies and human practices, has always been guided by both formal and informal rules throughout its history. These rules have been created at the sub-national, national, and international levels, by both governments and non-governmental organization alike. The result is an uncoordinated patchwork of laws, regulations, and standards created in a variety of forums,” said the report. Within this patchwork of policy, the report identified four areas of conflict:

  1. Ambiguity on a proper forum to address issues
  2. Challenges over jurisdiction
  3. Disagreements on which policies to address
  4. Disagreements on policy goals or measures

The report provides specific recommendations for each area, but the one area of particular interest is the ambiguity on a proper forum to address issues. Castro observed that in many instances, conflicts are being resolved, but in the wrong forums. Take for instance, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization that coordinates maintenance on databases and keeps the Internet stable. In many cases, ICANN is the spot people go to solve disputes, but ICANN is more appropriate for Internet architecture issues. This presents a policy challenge to create the right forums to address the complexity of the Internet. For conflicts that require a more narrow and nuanced approach, the forums simply do not exist yet.

The report does a great job of showing the complexity of Internet regulation – and how domestic issues can impact the global community. ITIF provides a list of various categories of Internet policy, indicating the complexity of regulating the Internet:

  • Content regulation (e.g., freedom of expression, censorship, decency, hate speech, libel, etc.);
  • Intellectual property (e.g., copyright, patents, trademarks, etc.);
  • Data (e.g., privacy, security, data residency, mutual legal assistance treaties, etc.);
  • Commerce (e.g., e-commerce regulation; gambling regulations; taxes; trade policy; consumer protection; anti-trust and competition; sales of regulated goods, such as pharmaceuticals and tobacco; and sales of contraband, etc.);
  • Cybercrime (e.g., spam, malware, fraud, denial of service, intrusions, botnets, cyber stalking, harassment, etc.);
  • Network operation (e.g., spectrum allocation, IP address allocation, domain name allocation, interconnection agreements, international telecommunication regulations, etc.);
  • Network performance (e.g., protocol standards, network security, network design, conformance testing, etc.); and
  • Equity and access (e.g., broadband subsidies, digital literacy, connected schools and communities, computer ownership, etc.).

The model that the report lays out is a good start to help policy makers understand the core issues around Internet policy, and steps to improve governance. “Using this framework, it creates a much healthier environment for innovation and for the internet economy,” said Castro. ITIF has a lot of terrific resources – if this report was something that you loved, be sure to subscribe to their alerts to get future reports and other interesting content.





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