2.13 Governance of the Internet

Contrary to first impressions, the Internet is closely governed, and on many levels. Most basic are the protocols handling data across networks. Then come the applications and the languages in which they are written: all must conform to the client-server model. Webpage java applets, for example, once so popular, will commonly be flagged by browsers and firewalls because they can compromise the security of client machines. Beyond these technical matters lies the issue of domain names, the resolution of conflicts that arise, and the control that many organizations and countries impose on who can see what and where.

Domain Names

In 1995 the US government set up the not-for-profit Internet Corporation for Assigning Numbers and Names (ICANN), {3} which was to establish policies, assign domains and handle conflicts. ICANN subsequently authorized over 250 'country code top-level domains', so that a UK company could own a domain like 'mycompany.co.uk'. {2} From 2009, in a further move away from its often-criticized US dominance, ICANN authorized the use of specially encoded domain names in their native language scripts (like the Arabic alphabet) or non-alphabetic writing systems (like Chinese).{4} {5}

Company Data Control

Information is the lifeblood of many companies, and a 2006 survey by the UK's Department of Trade and Industry found that 58% of UK companies possessed information that was highly confidential, a figure rising to 77% in large organizations. Some 80% stored highly confidential records on computers, and 74% would suffer significant business disruption if the data were corrupted. Only 25% of UK businesses had tested their disaster recovery plans in the last year, although 62% had suffered a security incident in the same period. Security breaches were indeed continuing, and cost UK industry £10 billion per year, up 50% from two years previously. Average company spending on information security was 4-5% of the IT budget, but 40% of companies spent less than 1%. {1} Only a proper governance of its own networks will enable companies to survive these threats to data loss, reputation and legal proceedings.

Employer Control

Many companies monitor or control their employees' Internet access during office hours, and with good reason. A survey conducted by two research firms, Dataquest and IDC, concluded that 'approximately 22.8 million US employees (40 percent of the Internet-enabled work force) waste one or more hours on the Internet each day'. The wasted time costs US businesses approximately $63 billion a year. {8} Several surveillance technologies are available, {6} but the activity is not free of legal and ethical considerations. Individuals may feel their privacy is being invaded, trust impaired and even their rights under America's First Amendment restricted. {7}

Government Control

Authoritarian governments generally police their citizens and prohibit access to alternative views. Western democracies are more subtle, and public opinion is molded by competing groups: government, civil service, legal profession, academia, broadcasting, newspapers, corporations, financial institutions, etc. {9} But to all governments the Internet poses particularly sharp ethical problems. Most countries prosecute child pornography, for example, though it's technically a curb on free expression. Countries like China extend the prohibition to pornography in general, {11} and both America {12} and Australia {13} have toyed with banning such sites. India {16} is considering banning blasphemous material, and Europe {17} {18} {19} is moving towards Internet control. America {20} has used the Patriot Act to remove sites, though the threat of emergency Presidential powers to shut down the Internet entirely {21} seems exaggerated.

Website owners can be sued for libel and other civil infringements, but offending parties in authoritarian regimes face imprisonment or worse. {23} {24} {25} {26}

Governance Technologies

There are several ways of censoring or blocking Internet content: {10}

1. Denying access to certain IP addresses.
2. Preventing domain names being resolved into IP addresses.
3. Scanning the requested URL string for suspect keywords.
4. Packet filtering for suspect keywords.
5. Completely closing down a country's Internet.

Controls are commonly circumvented by employing:

1. Proxy servers (alternative and ever changing IP addresses).
2. Virtual Private Networks that create a secure connection to a more permissive country.
3. Software specific to various countries, e.g: Alkasir, Freegate, Freenet, I2P, Java Anon Proxy, Tor and Ultrasurf.

The sites most commonly banned are pedophile, pornographic, social networks, media sharing, wikileaks, peer-to-peer and filesharing, wikipedia, political blogs, erowid, search engines, and 4chan. {10}


1. The Internet is the last free place on earth. Comment.
2. How are domain names handled? What are the latest developments?
3. Is company data generally secure on the Internet. What, if anything, still needs to be done?
4. How is Internet content blocked or censored? What are the ways of evading such control?
5. Suggest sensible policies regarding the Internet publication of sensitive material. Does recent history provide any useful guidelines?

Sources and Further Reading

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