Who owns the internet? Who manages the internet? Who governs the internet? And does it really matter?

Well, yes it certainly does – and the answer has to be co-operative governance!

Let me explain. Only the most naïve people – mainly on the so-called “libertarian right” – still propagate the myth that the internet is “free”, with no limits on how it is used. In the early days of the internet, when it was largely used by academics and “geeks”, the idea of communication without limits seemed simple and attractive. Then, some argued that the internet is “just the pipes” and nobody should regulate or monitor what goes through the pipes, ignoring the fact that water and sewerage services are amongst our most tightly regulated public services.

In any event, that is no longer the world we live in. Over the past 10 years the internet has become a vital medium for business activity, for Government activity and for social communication in a way that was previously unimaginable.  Increasingly, the internet affects the daily lives of every nation and individual on this planet – including those who don’t themselves use it or have access to it. And it’s used by crooks and terrorists and paedophiles as well as by innovative businesses and banks and grannies and children.

And in reality all sorts of decisions are taken about who can do what on the internet. Service Providers take commercial decisions about what they offer and what they allow. And nations have their own priorities:

* China has been criticised for trying to prevent access to Western news sites.

* In the UK we have taken steps to prevent access to online child abuse sites.

* And the USA has tried to prevent its citizens gaining access to online offshore gambling sites.

You may agree with one approach and object to another but there’s no doubt that decisions are being taken, and the big question is how to decide what’s right and wrong – and who should be taking the decisions. There’s no way that something so vital can be “ungoverned” any more than our physical environment or our seas and our air space cane be unregulated. The internet has created a revolution in communications and relationships. Business activity has expanded exponentially. It continues to accelerate, and while Society has become even more complex over hundreds of years the internet has suddenly created a new reality because communication is now:

*Fast, and getting faster.

* International — and lacking boundaries.

* Difficult to manage and make safe.

So the speed and pace of change mean that we need to decide on a different sort of governance.

Actually we did make those decisions in 2005 – when the world adopted a co-operative solution. At the turn of the century a debate started on whether the USA should continue to “own” the internet essentially through a “licence” from a Government Department. Some countries called for “control” to be handed to an international agency. America and others opposed the introduction of an international bureaucracy because a traditional regulatory approach could never cope with the internet.
Then, at the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in 2005, the predicted breakdown was averted.

Instead, there was agreement to work through “dynamic coalitions” and “enhanced co-operation”. Coalitions of the willing would work together to design actions to govern the web. There would be a co-operative approach to issues like security, access and governance generally. This would come together in an annual event – the Internet Governance Forum – with a five-year mandate to show that we can achieve more together than we can alone and that a co-operative model can achieve more than can be achieved through traditional approaches of treaties, legislation and bureaucracy.

Co-operators know that this lesson can be applied to life and politics and the environment and business – and it’s a lesson that has been ignored by most through history. But now there’s the chance of a fresh start through Co-operative Governance of the Internet.

Since 2005, the annual events have grown in importance – but far more important is the spontaneous activity that has been generated around the world. For example, the East African IGF – held this September in Nairobi – reflects a genuine passion for joint working across the region. It’s being followed by the first West African IGF, by developments in West Africa and by the latest development is the bringing together of a US IGF.

A powerful illustration of the co-operative approach at work is shown in the UK’s approach to preventing online child abuse, which has been cut from some 16% to less than 0.1%. That has been achieved through action by companies to achieve an outcome supported by Government, children’s charities and backed by MPs across the parties.

So our approach – bringing together the four very different worlds of Government, Industry, Parliament and Civil Society, to achieve outcomes set through discussion and joint working – can work well.

But it requires individuals and businesses to engage. And it needs Governments to trust the process – perhaps sometimes following the activity with legislation which complements the activity without assuming control – as our own Government has agreed to do.

While the internet knows no boundaries, that doesn’t mean that individuals and groups can do nothing. The fact that much internet-related crime is international in nature hasn’t stopped the development of engagement at sub-national level and the Wales e-crime Forum and the Yorkshire e-Crime Business Centre are good examples.

All that is required for the triumph of evil is that people of goodwill do nothing. So will you join in the debate about how we make sure that the world of the internet, which is increasingly the world we inhabit, is a co-operative world?

This article originally appeared on LabourList.org