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How much influence should governments have over the internet?

A UN process currently underway could result in national governments being given more control over the internet. JORDAN CARTER outlines the risks and argues that a multi-stakeholder approach to governance is vital to the internet’s continuing success

In 2025, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly will make decisions on the future of a vital but little-known set of technology governance processes that will shape the evolution and development of the internet. This UN work comes about from a review of progress since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) concluded in 2005. Next year marks twenty years since the summit and the review, and associated decision-making, has been dubbed ‘WSIS+20’.

Much has moved on in the technology world since 2005, a time before smartphones, high speed wireless connectivity, the marvels of nascent AI technologies and more. Yet the framework developed at WSIS has in many respects proved flexible and adaptable enough to support progress towards the vision agreed in the summit’s first phase (2003), to ‘build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life’.

But while much has changed, some things haven’t. One of those is an enduring disagreement at the UN about the role of governments in shaping the internet and digital technology more broadly. At stake are changes to the governance of the internet that will profoundly affect its future. The stakes are high and yet the discussion is not well known.

This article explores the background and context of why a coalition of internet technical organisations led by country code, of which the .au Domain Administration (auDA) is a founding member, is spearheading an effort to protect the current multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance. This approach enables decisions shaping the future of the internet to be made in ways that involves all stakeholders on an equal footing. Our coalition believes this model delivers what the world needs: an internet that works. 

The governance debate

WSIS painted a broad picture of how to enable an information society that would serve people’s interests. On the question of how the internet is governed, WSIS embedded a compromise that may be familiar to many readers who follow the work of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

In brief, some countries wanted to embed the administration and governance of key elements of the internet’s identifiers – domain names, internet protocol (IP) addresses, autonomous system (AS) numbers among others  – into the ITU or a different intergovernmental institution.1 The logic was that, just as with the telephone system, there was a global organisation with a mandate agreed by member states to deal with such critical issues – the ITU being seen as this institution. Other countries did not want to see these resources assigned to the ITU, or any other intergovernmental framework. The internet had grown in research or private sector settings and this second group of countries felt that the institutions in place supported the internet as it should be and had successfully supported its growth from thousands to hundreds of millions of users. Before exploring this compromise, it is important to understand that the institutions that had emerged to support the internet’s development were at the centre of the debate.

The core internet technologies and their identifier systems, such as domain names, did not emerge in a vacuum. From small scale research experiments funded by United States taxpayers, they had by the early 1990s begun to take off on a much bigger scale. A wave of institution-building in that decade and in the 1980s supported the rollout of the internet and established its governance in organisations that are deeply embedded in the communities that provide and make use of them.

Some countries want to see an expanded role for UN member states and a reduced role for other stakeholders in shaping the internet’s future

These institutions include regional internet registries such as LACNIC or APNIC, established as the authoritative registries of IP addresses and AS numbers.2 Identifiers of this sort were – and remain – essential to the rollout of internet connectivity, joining diverse network technologies into the fabric of the internet. They also includes domain name registries or managers like auDA or Verisign, that are responsible for managing particular ccTLDs such as  .au, or generic top-level domains (gTLDs) such as .com and determining the policies and licensing rules that apply to those who wish to register a domain name. Domain names are a convenient human-memorable identifier in the internet world, pointing to websites or forming a core part of email addresses, and are deeply embedded in online infrastructure.

The emergence of ICANN

Towards the end of the 1990s, the various internet technical communities, researchers and some governments acknowledged that, given the huge explosion in interest and use of the internet, its governance would need to be put on a more durable footing. There was a foreseeable need to develop and evolve globally consistent policy frameworks for gTLDs, and information sharing and policy (if needed) for ccTLDs and the internet numbering community. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was born, initially operating with a formal contractual connection to the United States government, but it was eventually privatised in 2016 via a significant multi-stakeholder transition process.

ICANN brings together domain name registries, registrars (the companies that sell domain name licences to the public), regional internet registries, commercial lawyers, internet users, civil society rights advocates, law enforcement and many of those with an interest in internet identifiers. Its governance balances those interests under the rubric of supporting the global public interest through keeping the internet working – unfragmented, interoperable and open for business. This is an example of the ‘multi-stakeholder’ model. In a practical sense, decisions at ICANN require enough consensus to be approved. The diverse actors, interests and perspectives incorporated in the decision-making processes mean that decisions that are made are generally workable and durable. This is not always a feature of governance regimes where one stakeholder (governments, for example) makes all the decisions. 

ICANN is a company based in California. It operates under the legal framework of that state. It is not an intergovernmental organisation. It has no legal immunities or special privileges. Diplomats and the countries they represent are not privileged in its governance. It is deeply unfamiliar to those steeped in the UN system and the ways in which that system works.

The original compromise

During WSIS, the contest between these two perspectives – intergovernmental or multi-stakeholder – played out in two ways. First, in the scope of what was coming to be called internet governance and second, in the institutional framework that WSIS might create as the forum for internet governance to happen.

The WSIS compromises in these areas were:

  • to agree to a broad definition of ‘internet governance’ which dealt with all of the public policy related matters arising from the spread of the internet and its use rather than focusing narrowly on internet resources. 
  • to establish a discussion forum to house these discussions in the form of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), rather than establishing a new intergovernmental structure with decision-making powers over internet resources.

The IGF – now in its 19th year – has a mandate to foster discussion on all public policy related matters arising from the internet. This broad scope has over the years seen the IGF develop into a space where all issues and opportunities from the internet’s rise can be discussed and from which the various stakeholders can take actions in their field’s responsibility. Crucially, the IGF is an open forum. Its programme is generated by community proposals, shaped by a multi-stakeholder advisory group with representatives from governments, civil society, business, technical communities and academia. Participation in the IGF’s events and intersessional work is open to all. Ideas and proposals rise and fall on their merits and no single stakeholder dominates. The WSIS outcome on this central question of multi-stakeholder versus intergovernmental internet governance marked a success for the countries that thought the status quo institutional settlement for the internet identifiers should remain in place. The multi-stakeholder approach won the day.

Countries that thought otherwise have never been fully reconciled to that decision. In different ways and different forums, the debate recurs. It is doing so again in the lead-up to 2025, and the question of whether intergovernmental institutions are needed for this narrow but vital slice of technology infrastructure is back on the table. The WSIS+20 review could lead to a renewal of the IGF’s mandate, or it could lead to a change. Some countries want to see an expanded role for UN member states and a reduced role for other stakeholders in shaping the internet’s future. In the run-up to the WSIS+20 review, another initiative could also play a crucial role.

The global digital compact

In 2021, the UN Secretary General António Guterres set out an ambitious proposal for the renewal of the UN system in response to a UN General Assembly request. Noting that the system was not delivering on some fundamental goals (world peace, sustainable development) nor dealing with common challenges (the climate crisis, the digitalisation of society), he argued that change was needed. After ongoing negotiations between countries in response to Guterres’ plan, the process will conclude at the Summit of the Future, scheduled for September 2024 in New York. The summit is intended to adopt a ‘Pact for the Future’ to reinvigorate the United Nations. Part of the summit is devoted to digital issues and a separate document – the Global Digital Compact (GDC) under the pen of two co-facilitator nations, Sweden and Zambia3 – is under development.

The compact connects with the WSIS+20 review because part of what it deals with is internet governance. In a policy brief seeking to shape the compact, Guterres proposed a new digital cooperation forum (DCF) as a way to draw digital policy thinking from around the world and across the UN together. It would be intergovernmental in nature, not open to all stakeholders and would be tasked, among other things, with drawing together digital policy discussion in a ‘hub and spoke’ format with the DCF at the centre. Such a forum, if created, would be an interesting counterpoint to the IGF. While it has not figured in the negotiations for the GDC in New York so far (at time of writing in June 2024), there is much to be done before the compact is concluded.

As part of the policy brief, Guterres was also quite clear that he sees governments, the private sector and civil society as the crucial stakeholders in digital policy. The vital roles that academia and the internet’s technical communities have played in the important public good the internet has become were simply not acknowledged. If UN member states do end up creating a DCF through the compact, it seems unlikely that those same member states will also renew the mandate of the IGF during the WSIS+20 review. If so, they could choose to implement a model that marginalises key stakeholders in the internet’s governance.

So far, the emerging GDC is not taking up the secretary general’s DCF proposal. The role of the technical community is now being acknowledged in the draft GDC text. The importance of the IGF is acknowledged and supported. Nevertheless, a wide range of proposals have been made by diverse countries in the course of the compact’s development. Some of those proposals would reopen the underlying debate outlined in this article, seeking a move towards a more intergovernmental approach to governing the internet.

A battle for the future

That is why those interested in sustaining the open, inclusive model of internet governance and coordination are heavily focused on both the WSIS+20 review and on the compact that will precede it. Stakeholders such as auDA have become involved in the discussions because of a strongly held view that the multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance is an important underpinning that supports  the internet’s growth and development. Threats to that approach could put the success of the internet at risk and complicate the work of those who operate it on a day-to-day basis.

The goal is clear – maintaining a diverse, open, multi-stakeholder model of internet governance that can foster the internet’s ongoing success

To respond to that risk, a range of technical community stakeholders have begun to mobilise. Inspired in part by a roadmap published by auDA in 2023, a coalition of like-minded internet technical organisations from around the world has been working since the start of 2024 to engage in these UN debates, recognising that they could shape the prospects of the internet’s ongoing evolution and growth. Led by the ccTLD managers for Australia (auDA), Canada (CIRA), New Zealand (InternetNZ) and the UK (Nominet), the Technical Community Coalition for Multistakeholderism includes other domain name registries alongside regional internet registries. Interest is growing and a web presence for the coalition will be established in the second half of the year. Some of the coalition’s work is about protecting the core aspects of how the internet architecture works and the governance model that supports it. Some of it is about how to deepen and broaden the participation of the widest possible range of stakeholders in the work of internet governance. It also involves hard thinking about how to deal effectively with some of the newer problems resulting from the internet’s impact on society –  no-one would deny that its success hasn’t also come with challenges.

The coalition’s work is articulated in a ‘statement of purpose’4 that sets out its agenda and  founding organisations and was published in early June 2024. The goal is clear – maintaining a diverse, open, multi-stakeholder model of internet governance that can foster the internet’s ongoing success. Coalition members have made a number of interventions in the consultations on the GDC and these, along with written contributions made to the negotiators and to our home country governments, have helped shape it in a manner that poses fewer risks than could have been the case.

Coalition members were also a core part of the recent NETmundial+10 event, held in  São Paulo in April 2024. With a tightly scoped focus on how to strengthen support for multi-stakeholder internet governance, a key output of this event was the São Paulo guidelines.5 These provide a specific and actionable template for internet governance and digital policy discussion to be conducted through a multi-stakeholder approach.

As the focus shifts from the GDC this year, through to IGF 2024 and on to the WSIS+20 review proceedings next year, our work will continue. Ways to evolve and improve how the internet is governed are top of mind. It can be too easy to take the historic success of the internet for granted and to overlook how much its model of governance has been integral to its success. We welcome further technical organisations into the coalition. By working together we can amplify our voice and be more successful in helping governments to shape UN processes.

Readers interested in finding out more about this topic are invited to contact the author. You can find out more about auDA’s work on internet governance at

Jordan Carter

Jordan Carter is the internet governance and policy director at .au Domain Administration (auDA). [email protected]

1 More information on internet identifiers can be found on the ICANN website. See

2 LACNIC and APNIC are the regional internet registries for the Latin American and Caribbean, and Asia Pacific regions respectively.

3 Zambia succeeded Rwanda as co-facilitator in October 2023.

4 A Technical Community Coalition for Multistakeholderism: our Statement of Purpose.

5 See