Internet governance is a messy business. The global network of networks is subject to regulation by states and control by private entities, yet it also remains a key platform for free expression around the world. The conflicts between regulation and code that occur in the day to day function of the internet are also underpinned by governance institutions that range from standards-setting bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force, which invites open participation from technical specialists to international organizations like the ITU, where discussions primarily take place between governments and companies. Alongside these are multi-stakeholder forums such as the Internet Governance Forum, where civil society organizations are invited to participate. These UN-supported meetings are vital for raising competing ideas, but they aren’t decision-making bodies. In fact, many of the important decisions about how the internet functions – at least in terms of privacy, copyright, censorship, social networking and net neutrality – are essentially made through the competing forces of code and law (at least according to a new book by Brown and Marsden).Often, these are challenged outside of official multi-stakeholder channels, as we saw with the actions around SOPA/PIPA and ACTA.
The European Commission has plans to clarify this confusing miasma. They have just announced the Global Internet Policy Observatory, “ an online platform to improve knowledge of and participation of all stakeholders across the world in debates and decisions on Internet policies”, according to the press release. It will apparently be hosted by the Commission in collaboration with stakeholders and NGOs already involved in internet governance, such as the Association for Progressive Communication, Diplo Foundation and the Internet Society.
The Observatory plans to provide policy briefs and identify policy trends (just like your much loved LSE Media Policy Project!), as well as promising to “contextualise information, for example by collecting existing academic information on a specific topic, highlighting the historical and current position of the main actors on a particular issue, identifying the interests of different actors in various policy fields”. This kind of long-term policy mapping is crucial for understanding how issues evolve. The biggest innovation that the Observatory promises is to “automatically monitor Internet-related policy developments at the global level, making full use of ‘big data’ technologies”. Given the range of ways that policy developments happen (through code, law, regulation, and occasionally activism) it will be a challenging innovation to deliver. Personally, I hope this project succeeds in providing a central clearing house for internet policy-related information – but I’m also not optimistic that the Commission will succeed in making sense of this convoluted policy area.