Would Top-Down Global Planning Have Created the Net?

by on October 3, 2011 · 0 comments

Here’s a sharp editorial from The Economist about Internet governance entitled,  “In Praise of Chaos: Governments’ Attempts to Control the Internet Should be Resisted.” In the wake of the recent Internet Governance Forum meeting, many folks are once again debating the question of who rules the Net? Along with Wayne Crews, I edited a huge collection of essays on that topic back in 2003 and it’s a subject that continues to interest me greatly. As I noted here last week, many of those who desire greater centralization of control over Net governance decisions are using the fear that “fragmentation” will occur without some sort of greater plan for the Net’s future. I believe these fears are greatly overstated and are being used to justify expanded government meddling with online culture and economics.

The new Economist piece nicely brings into focus the key question about who or what we should trust to guide the future of the Internet. It rightly notes that the current state of Net governance is, well, messy. But that’s not such a bad thing when compared to the alternative:

the internet is shambolically governed. It is run by a hotch-potch of organisations with three- to five-letter acronyms. Many of their meetings, both online and offline, are open to the public. Some—like the Internet Governance Forum, which held its annual meeting in Nairobi this week—are just talking shops. Decision-making is slow and often unpredictable.

It is in short a bit chaotic. But sometimes chaos, even one that adherents like to claim somewhat disingenuously is a “multi-stakeholder” approach, is not disastrous: the internet mostly works. And the shambles is a lot better than the alternative—which nearly always in this case means governments bringing the internet under their control.

Quite right, and the editorial continues on to pose the crucial question about today’s situation:

Imagine if the ITU, a classic example of a sluggish international bureaucracy with antiquated diplomatic rituals, or indeed any other inter-governmental organisation, had been put in charge of the nascent global network two decades ago. Would it have produced a world-changing fount of innovation? We think not.

Indeed, it would be hard to imagine top-down design and central planning could have given rise to today’s Internet. While very few global officials propose the wholesale government takeover of the Net today, we should nonetheless be skeptical about calls to have international bureaucracies exert greater authority over the Internet, regardless of the justification. Messy governance beats top-down planning.

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