Shared governance of Web is vital to the greater good

Elon University professor Janna Anderson is director of Imagining the Internet and lead author of the "Future of the Internet" surveys for the Pew Internet Project. She is leading a group of eight researchers to IGF 2007 in Rio de Janeiro.

By Janna Anderson

The Internet is the most empowering and most endangering network in human history.

Whenever a successful new network is born -- from cart paths to shipping lanes to the Internet -- a battle over control ensues. People experiment with and find ways to leverage the network for communication and progress, while powerful commercial and government interests seek to exercise authority. The vast majority of people use networks in a positive way, but some pursue negative agendas, including soulless monetary gain, power-mongering, terror, crime, unethical conduct and vandalism.

People around the world must unite to emphasize the positives and minimize the negatives at work in our evolving and ever more sophisticated networked world. That's why computer scientists and engineers, policy experts, businesspeople, social activists and members of civil society are working together to leverage the Internet to benefit global good. Nobody wants to mess this one up. It's too important.

Because the Internet crosses every border, it is unlikely we can achieve agreement on its governance. Instead, we must find ways to work cooperatively to deal with problems that can often seem impossible to solve.

How can we bring access to more people and nurture diverse content when there are few economic incentives for companies to expand the network to those who aren't connected? Will governments impose innovation-stifling regulations to protect big businesses and censor the network in the battle against cybercrime and cyberterrorism? Is the Internet -- this individual-empowering, globe-leveling tool -- destined to become a tiered structure controlled by Microsoft, AT&T, Google or a few other corporate giants?

Many concerns about the future of the Internet are wrapped in complex, competing values, making public debate crucial. Security issues are facing off against privacy and identity issues. We have pervasive positives such as convenience and access versus negatives, including surveillance. We have the advancement of civil liberties facing the struggle for continued control waged by entrenched institutions.

The ideal behind the shared "wisdom of crowds" online is counterbalanced by the Internet's potential for inspiring the sort of group think that forces faulty decisions and false judgments. And there are battles being fought over the meaning of "intellectual property" -- the World Intellectual Property Organization was formed to prevent fraud and theft, but many people see intellectual-property law leading to "intellectual poverty" because of its potential for dampening opportunity for creativity.

New issues pop up regularly. Most current Internet interaction is found in the user-generated content and social networks of Web 2.0. But the 3D Web-computing ecosystem is developing quickly. Technology is embedded in the natural spaces of our lives. It is progressively more personal, portable and pervasive.

The tracking and storage of every bit of information about ourselves is now within our capability. Every item in the physical world is being mapped, tagged and databased. We are incorporating enhanced networked communications in our day-to-day activities through the confluence of the Internet, Global Positioning Systems, smart-tag networks and portable-wearable information technology.

Information is power. Corporations are going to continue to acquire, buy, label and sell information, and governments are going to continue to monitor and influence its flow. We can't stop that. We can work to encourage individual leaders to make open, responsible decisions that serve the common good.

Never before has it been so important to have well-educated, informed, good-hearted, visionary leaders.

Who should control the Internet?

A system of shared governance -- a network of groups of smart Internet stakeholders with targeted responsibilities -- is an imperfect one at best. But the vast majority of people whose first loyalty is to serve humanity consider this the best option. Shared governance will continue to evolve as the Internet becomes more complex. That's why it is vital that all of the nodes in the human network -- all of us as individuals -- are constantly engaged in finding ways to continue the positive evolution of this pinnacle of connection.