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Innovative approaches to governing the internet are needed, say experts from a new global internet policy commission set up to find and propose such solutions to governments over the next two years.

Intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s exposure of online surveillance by the US-government has shaken the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance by undermining trust among stakeholders, according to Tobby Simon, a member of the Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG).

The commission started work in May after being established in January by think-tanks Chatham House and the Centre for International Governance Innovation to “provide a strategic vision for the future of internet governance”, addressing how to preserve innovation while avoiding risks such as cybercrime, for example.

“Multi-stakeholder control of the internet is necessary given that the internet is a global resource.”

Laurent Elder, GCIG

Its members come from around the world, including Chile, Ghana, India, Indonesia and Tunisia, and it has a network of 25 research advisors. The commission aims to bring innovative ideas about the future of the internet to the international negotiating table.

Internet governance is diffused between stakeholders within governments, civil society, academia and the private sector, but now that the extent of online spying has come to light thanks to Snowden, this model could fall apart, says Simon.

“Instances of online surveillance have led to a loss of trust between stakeholders, putting the open, multi-stakeholder model of the internet under threat,” he says.

Of most concern is the risk of “internet fragmentation”, with countries like Germany and Brazil raising the possibility of cordoning off their digital networks as part of national security measures.

Laurent Elder, a research advisor for the GCIG and director of the Information and Networks program for Canada’s International Development Research Centre, says internet fragmentation is a new frontier for ICT policymakers.

“We have benefited over the last 20 years from an open and interoperable internet. We don’t really know what the consequences of a fragmented internet would be,” he says. “There are probably more questions than answers at this point, which is why the [GCIG] is needed."

Through its research advisory network, the GCIG commission will look into questions surrounding the potential impact of internet fragmentation on economic growth and innovation, says Elder.

“We don't really understand how the openness of the internet creates economic value in and of itself,” he says.

Researching the kinds of global policies that will safeguard an open internet is a key need, agrees Ashnah Kalemera, programme officer at CIPESA (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa).

“Multi-stakeholder control of the internet is necessary given that the internet is a global resource,” she says. “The [GCIG] is very much needed to ensure equitable distribution [of control of the internet] and the sustained functioning of this model.”

Yet issues like internet access — still of primary concern in Africa, where only one fifth of the population has access to the internet — have been eclipsed by the Snowden affair, Kalemera points out.

“Access once took centre stage but internet governance forums are now overridden by matters of security and privacy, primarily applicable to the majority of users in America or Europe,” she says.

“Access, affordability and connectivity, which are the key concerns for Sub-Saharan Africa, are not adequately represented or debated with the same vigour as the National Security Agency, Snowden and WikiLeaks.”

Yet by documenting “global good practice”, the GCIG could also address broader issues surrounding internet policy, says Elder.

“[The GCIG] will help develop specific policies to ensure that the internet is a beneficial tool for countries rather than anything else,” he says. “It will help answer some of the bigger questions around the way the internet should be governed.”

Link to Global Commission on Internet Governance