Categories
About Internet Society

Our Work to Make the Internet for Everyone Marches On

Over the past several months the Internet Society has been working on a transaction to sell Public Interest Registry (PIR), operator of .ORG and other top-level domains, to Ethos Capital. Under PIR’s registry agreements, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) had to consent to this indirect change of control. ICANN has now announced that it does not consent to the transaction.

I am, of course, disappointed by ICANN’s decision, though I am pleased it was finally reached. ICANN took much longer than it should have done to vote on the transaction. In my view, ICANN stepped outside its remit by acting as a regulator it was never intended to beWhat began as a routine change of indirect control – the type ICANN has expeditiously approved on multiple occasions in the past – resulted in months and months of review and analysis. The outcome does not seem consistent with ICANN’s prior decisions in similar cases. It should concern  the Internet community that ICANN has shown itself to be much more susceptible to political pressure than its limited mandate would recommend.

Nevertheless, ICANN has now rendered a clear decision. This brings to a close a period of uncertainty that has been hard on everybody, and a distraction from the important work of the Internet Society

When the Internet Society Trustees were faced with a financial offer of such magnitude from Ethos to purchase PIR, they had to consider it. It would have been irresponsible to ignore it. When the Trustees accepted the offer in a unanimous vote, they did so because they believed the transaction would be good for the Internet Society, good for PIR, and good for registrants in .ORG and all the registries PIR operates. It’s not very often when an opportunity presents itself that has advantages for everyone. 

When we announced the proposed transaction we were criticized, sometimes bitterly, by people who were unhappy with it. I understood their concerns. I still do.

Ethos made several good-faith attempts to allay those concerns. I believe these measures would have worked and benefited the community, had they been accepted; but others disagreed.

Some sought widespread consultations. We did not believe it would be possible to undertake those consultations without doing a lot of harm to PIR and hence to the registrants in .ORG. The months of uncertainty regarding PIR’s future since the proposal was announced have been hard on PIR’s employees.  An extended consultation without any clear picture of what the possible outcomes might be would have been worse for PIR and for .ORG. Neither the Trustees nor I believed we could undertake such a consultation, and we do not believe that such a consultation would be a good idea now.

Though ICANN has refused its consent, PIR has diligently adhered to its responsibilities under its agreements with ICANN, and it will continue to do so in its usual exemplary fashion. Now that we know that ICANN believes its remit to be much larger than we believe it is, we can state this clearly: neither PIR nor any of its operations are for sale now, and the Internet Society will resist vigorously any suggestion that they ought to be.

The Internet Society will focus on its core work: an Internet that is open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy for everyone. At a time when we are all reminded about how crucial the Internet is for society, our work has never been more critical. We will continue to focus on that work in support of our mission. To do it, we shall continue to rely on our partners at PIR, who will maintain, as ever, its exemplary service to all those who rely on .ORG and the other TLDs PIR operates.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Jon Nevett, Brian Cimbolic, and Judy Song-Marshall at PIR for their continuous support. I want also to acknowledge and thank the tireless commitment of the Ethos team and their leader, Erik Brooks. Their commitment to do the right thing by showing, through action, how they would be excellent stewards of .ORG deserved better than the treatment they received at times.

Our work to make the Internet for everyone marches on.


Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on KeyPointsAbout.Org.

For more information about the Internet Society’s work, please see our 2019 Impact Report.

Categories
Growing the Internet Strengthening the Internet

Unfortunate Natural Experiment Shows the Internet Works

For many weeks now, as the pandemic caused by the coronavirus has spread around the world, people have been isolating themselves to reduce the spread of infection. Businesses and schools have closed, and whole cities have been ordered to stay indoors. People’s livelihoods have disappeared, and of course, far too many people have been critically ill or have died. It is a calamity. Yet it would be much worse, if it were not for the Internet.

It’s enabling life to go on. Businesses and schools are able to continue their core activity online. People are able to order food and medicine delivery to lower the risk of contagion. Families are video conferencing to catch up, worship, and even attend weddings. Creators are streaming music and stories from their homes. Clinicians and researchers are sharing crucial medical data worldwide. Everyday citizens, remarkably informed, are trying to flatten the curve.

This is what the Internet is for: a force for good in society.

Resilient by Design

The Internet is working well under this sudden demand because of how it is designed. Nearly magic, the Internet is designed to be a reliable system built of unreliable parts. This might sound awful, as though it only works by accident, but it’s actually engineering genius. The Internet is a complex, reliable system that can be repaired with things that are inexpensive and ready to hand, which means that it will work under unexpected strains. Some have been worrying about whether the Internet can “stand up” under a heavy, widely distributed load. As long as the Internet’s myriad networks have been built with sound engineering, they will hold up. Despite all the media streaming and video conferences, measurable reports of trouble have been remarkably rare. The design works!

Just over a year ago, we celebrated that a little over half the world’s population had access to the Internet. But what of those who don’t? They are often those with the fewest resources, the fewest advocates, and the biggest troubles. Yet all the unconnected deserve the chance to be connected if they want to be. We should not be shy about closing the gap in multiple ways.

We should deploy access and network-improving technologies according to the need of the communities. This means enabling local communities to take things into their own hands – what the Internet is designed to do – rather than depending on megaprojects or incumbent operators to provide something. Regulation that favor existing players remain in place all over the world, and recent trends have not made that better. We must make sure that people everywhere have the skills and knowledge to build and maintain their networks and services in the best ways we know.

Bumpy Last Mile

Of course, not every network has been built the best way, and this is true everywhere. Some access networks – what people get from a home network connection, for instance – have too many subscribers given the promised bandwidth. Sometimes, mobile bandwidth is massively oversubscribed. Home network gear is often not really as good as it might be, and it is not usually installed professionally, so it does not work as well as it theoretically could anyway. These are shortcomings because they affect people connected through inadequate network, whether that means their local Internet service provider (ISP) or even the network at home. And the Internet’s design helps because fixing one issue provides immediate benefit.

Unfortunate Anomalies

Some networks are unreliable by design. Governments and regulators sometimes prevent robust network designs on purpose:

  • Some require data always to remain in-country – often officially for “sovereignty” and too often really for censorship – so the most efficient network path is not always possible.
  • Some require a small number of (usually inadequate) connections to the rest of the world, to ensure it is possible to perform a “shutdown;” so a fast network in-country struggles to get international traffic through the slow lines.
  • Some insist on controlling or otherwise dominating the policies of local Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), driving away big social media and streaming companies who have a lot of content.
  • Some indulge in frequent total or partial shutdowns of the network, thereby discouraging investment and scaring off large providers of content who don’t want to lose control of their systems for weeks at a time.
  • Many governments attempt to restrict, weaken, or undermine encrypted communications in the name of security, even though the prospect of talking to our doctors or banks without the protection of strong encryption ought to terrify everyone.

Every one of the above is a self-imposed harm. Each could be countered by building the best technical infrastructure we know how to build. That ought to be the shared goal not just of technical people, but of everyone – civil society and politicians included. If the Internet is really how we will cope with major calamities like COVID-19, then we had better be sure the Internet is strong and accessible for everyone.

This global health crisis shows us just how much we need the Internet. Sure, it can amuse us with videos of cats or everyone’s latest baking project. But it can keep billions employed, children learning, and quite literally save people’s lives. We need to keep growing the Internet and to making it strong. Let us ensure the Internet is open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy. Then we can be sure it is for everyone.


Photo of a participant during the Third Summit on Community Networks in Africa ©Internet Society/Nyani Quarmyne/Panos Pictures

Categories
About Internet Society

The Internet Society & Public Interest Registry: A New Era of Opportunity

Today marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the .ORG Community.  Earlier today, the Internet Society and Public Interest Registry (PIR) announced that they have reached an agreement with Ethos Capital, an investment firm that helps transform and grow companies in today’s rapidly evolving digital economy, under which Ethos Capital will acquire PIR and all of its assets from the Internet Society.  

As brief background – in 2002, the Internet Society won a competitive bidding process for the .ORG registry and established PIR to manage and operate the .ORG domain.  Since that time, the Internet Society and PIR have worked to grow .ORG into the largest purpose-driven domain – used today by millions of organizations and others to achieve their online goals – and PIR’s contributions to the Internet Society have helped make the Internet more available, accessible and secure for people around the world.

This transaction aligns PIR with a strong, new strategic partner, Ethos Capital, that not only possesses a deep understanding of the intricacies of the domain industry, but also has the ideal mix of expertise, experience and shared values to further advance the goals of .ORG into the future.  As a mission-driven firm focused on the guiding values and ideals that build successful organizations and communities, Ethos Capital is committed to ensuring complete continuity of PIR’s operations, to maintaining the strong community relationships PIR has established over the years, and to continuing PIR’s longstanding partnerships and vendor affiliations to ensure domain operations run smoothly, without disruption to the .ORG Community or other generic top-level domains operated by the organization.

Once the transaction is completed, PIR will continue to meet the highest standards of public transparency, accountability, and social performance in line with its longstanding purpose-driven mission, and will consider seeking B Corporation certification. 

Today’s news has tremendous benefits for both the Internet Society and PIR.  The transaction will help the Internet Society to secure its future through more stable, diversified and sustainable financial resources than it has at present, allowing the organization to plan for the long term and advance its vision of an Internet for everyone on an even broader scale.  It will also enable PIR to continue expanding its mission and important work under new ownership — including its goal of keeping .ORG accessible and reasonably priced — while further strengthening and deepening its commitment to the .ORG Community.

PIR and Ethos Capital are looking forward to launching several new initiatives aimed at promoting and supporting the .ORG Community, including:

  • Establishing a Stewardship Council that will serve to uphold PIR’s core founding values and provide support through a variety of community programs;
  • Launching a Community Enablement Fund to support the financing of current and additional initiatives undertaken by key Internet organizations; and 
  • Expanding a program to award .ORG prizes to promote the success and positive impact of non-profit organizations.

This announcement marks an important milestone within the domain industry – one that the Internet Society, PIR and Ethos Capital are confident will protect and enhance the interests of both the Internet and .ORG communities for years to come.

Andrew Sullivan
President & CEO
The Internet Society
Erik Brooks
Founder & CEO
Ethos Capital
Jon Nevett
CEO
Public Interest Registry

Examiner le GIFCT à la loupe

Categories
Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Looking the GIFCT in the Mouth

The recent meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was notable because of the attention it paid to the climate of the planet Earth. A different set of meetings around the UNGA was about another climate: the one of fear, anger, and violence swirling about the Internet.

It was only last March that a man (there is only one accused) shot dozens of people in a pair of attacks on Muslims at prayer. The shooter streamed the first 17 minutes of his attacks using Facebook Live. The use of an Internet service in this event, combined with general concern about how Internet services are being used for terrorism and violent extremism, resulted in the Christchurch Call.

There is some reason to be optimistic about the Christchurch Call. Rarely have governments worked so decisively or quickly, together, to take on a global social issue. At a side meeting in New York at UNGA, some 30-odd additional countries signed the Call; more than 50 countries have signed on. New Zealand has led this while insisting that governments cannot tackle the issue alone, and has tried to involve everyone – through an Advisory Network – in decisions that are bound to affect us all.

There may nevertheless be reasons to be more cautious than optimistic. The same side meeting announced the “overhaul” of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT). GIFCT (usually pronounced “gif-cee-tee”, with a hard g) was established by some large social media companies in 2017 in order to cooperate in efforts to address “terrorist content” found on the companies’ services. The definition of “terrorist content” has shifted over time, and is now referred to as “terrorist and violent extremist content” in order to make clear that not all of the targets are members of identifiable terrorist organizations. Regardless of these details, GIFCT sounds like a marvelous idea, and it has the potential to be a worthwhile effort. There is, however, a great deal of work that needs to be done to ensure that GITCT does not simply become a mechanism for some large companies to lock in their existing advantages.

The first issue with GIFCT is that, while it claims to be an Internet forum, it actually isn’t. It’s a forum for large social media platform companies to share their content filtering techniques in order to find certain kinds of content and remove it from the participating platforms. Social media platforms are not the Internet, and the architectural features that they generally share are not shared by every other service on the Internet. Of course, nobody except terrorists want terrorist content on social media, so it is probably a good thing for social media companies to collaborate in doing something about that content. Yet most social media services are designed with a central authority that controls the flow of content, and many other services on the Internet are designed to resist such centralization. The techniques that work for one kind of service will not work for all.

In addition, it is not merely that the mechanisms that fit most social media services are a poor fit for other kinds of Internet activity. It’s also the case that the operators of large social media companies have a real interest in blurring the distinction between their services and the Internet. No matter how well-meaning, the companies in question have an interest in supporting regulation that makes their platforms’ architecture a permanent feature of the whole Internet. If governments start adopting regulation of the Internet that favors the GIFCT approach, then the design of social media platforms will become a permanent feature of what we can do with the Internet. That shuts down future innovation, including innovations that might be more resistant to viral violent content in the first place. This is part of what makes the GIFCT restructuring announcement in New York so worrisome: it was announced approvingly by the governments who sponsored the Christchurch Call, as part of their ongoing program.

It is frankly weird that governments appear to be so comfortable with GIFCT, since the restructured organization has settled on a governance model that puts participating companies completely in charge. The four founding members of the GIFCT get permanent board seats, and other participating tech companies may also be on the board that makes all the decisions. Neither civil society, nor the technical community, nor governments, nor platform users, nor anyone else ever gets a say in how the GIFCT will work, what content will be covered, and so on. Such participation is relegated to an advisory committee with membership from government and the wider society but without any obvious teeth. That committee is also supposed to be small enough such that the real diversity of opinion is questionable, especially since it is entirely unclear how the committee is supposed to be populated. What is clear is that, in the end, only tech companies will have any ability to influence any decisions of GIFCT. It is correct for President Macron to keep calling this a “new multilateralism.” Multilateralism always depends on only certain stakeholders being involved. This new multilateralism basically outsources the solution to the problem of undesirable content to a consortium of industry players, which will be inevitably dominated by the largest companies in the industry due to the resources they have to put into this.

Setting aside the miserable governance story, the very approach of GIFCT rests on the principle that stamping out this undesirable content is both possible and efficacious. In fact, there is some reason to suppose that trying to stamp out unwanted messages backfires – that it further radicalizes people already radicalized. So, paradoxically, by weakening protected communications and filtering content, global leaders risk bolstering terrorists, rather than deterring them. And of course, even the best filters are imperfect: they miss content that should be filtered and they filter out content that should not have been filtered. They also have side effects: those working to protect journalists or prosecute war crimes are gradually finding that the evidence they used to rely on is all disappearing due to content filters. So, the fundamental activity of GIFCT is at best a half measure on the way to a healthy online environment; and, the activity might actually make things worse. Predictably enough, these problems are all supposed to be solved by the magic dust of Artificial Intelligence, but nobody can say how that will work.

As if that were not enough, the GIFCT has always been controversial in part because it looks like a solution to a problem without actually addressing the roots of that problem. Mere tech fixes to social problems almost never work, and the linked issues of terrorism and violent extremism are unquestionably social problems. The tech fix offered is to try to suppress undesirable content. The social problem appears to be rooted in the ways that current social media platforms both entice and reward users. It is at least possible that terrorist and violent extremist content “goes viral” because of a design feature of platforms. Perhaps their advertising-based operation, which requires user attention, makes them especially good at amplifying horrific content. Yet tackling that issue might have negative effects for the business models of the companies involved in GIFCT – the ones who will appoint all the voting board members of GIFCT. Without a countervailing voice in its governance, there will be no way for GIFCT to take on this issue credibly. There isn’t even a promise that the companies involved will abide by the GIFCT decisions – just that they’ll contribute to it.

Defenders of the new GIFCT organization design would point to the number of (new) working groups, which might be able to make recommendations to do something other than just filter content. But ironically, even here the GIFCT refresh might turn out to hinder as much as it helps. Since GIFCT is being turned into an institution separate from the social media platform companies, access to data that might have been possible while working within a given social media company will now have to be handled like all other data requests from researchers. Due to increased (and desirable!) efforts around privacy by social media companies, such data requests are today harder to satisfy than they used to be. So, even though the new institution will be dominated, if not controlled, by the platform companies, it appears likely to have the data-access disadvantages of being a separate entity.

There is still time to prevent these pitfalls. To do so requires reverting to the habits that brought us so many of the benefits of the Internet. Instead of the “new multilateralism,” which has brought us this institution of dubious legitimacy and questionable effectiveness, it is necessary to ensure wide and meaningful consultation with the rest of the Internet. A problem where everyone has a stake is properly addressed through collaboration. This means, in practice, the now-maligned, but still-serviceable approach of a multistakeholder institution. To achieve this, the GIFCT advisory panel can be made more useful through meaningful and binding commitments to organizational transparency: make the board of the GIFCT work in public and let us all understand what it is doing, and use the advisory panel to supervise that. This will also probably mean that “transparency reports” that are entirely defined, created, published, and audited by the same organization will need to end in favor of something at least as robust as modern accounting methods. At the same time, governments need to acknowledge, publicly, that GIFCT, even if it turns out to work in addressing an issue on social media platforms, will never be a perfect solution and almost certainly will be a poor fit for other kinds of technology. And everyone involved needs to state clearly what works means.

We need to be alert not only to what we dislike on the Internet. For example, we can certainly prevent the sharing of terrorist and violent extremist content by preventing the sharing of everything. That would be a pyrrhic victory indeed.

Categories
About Internet Society

Remembering Tarek Kamel

We learned the sad news today that Tarek Kamel, one of the global Internet community’s best-known figures, has passed away. An accomplished engineer and statesman, Tarek was highly respected and beloved by all who knew and worked with him.

He was a firm believer in our mission and we have benefited greatly from his support for our work. He has a special place in the Internet Society’s past having founded the Egyptian Chapter of the Internet Society, served on our Board of Trustees and as vice president for chapters from 1999 to 2002, before becoming Egypt’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology from 2004 to 2011.

He made so many valuable contributions to the Internet and will be sorely missed. On behalf of the whole Internet Society, we extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends.

Read Tarek Kamel: A Loss to the Internet Community.

Categories
About Internet Society

Announcing Joseph Hall as SVP for a Strong Internet

I’m excited to announce that Joseph Lorenzo Hall will join us as our Senior Vice President for a Strong Internet. He will start in October and be based in our Reston, VA, office.

Many of you may know Joe from his work at the Center for Democracy and Technology, where he has been Chief Technologist for about six years. He has a unique ability to put together policy and technical issues, particularly but not only with respect to security. He’s the Vice-Chair of the Board of the California Voter Foundation and a Board member of the Verified Voting Foundation. He went to school at UC Berkeley and received his PhD in Information Systems from there in 2008. A former astrophysicist, he has been working on a monograph about sand clocks, which you may know by the term “hourglass”. I am not kidding even a little when I say you should ask about it, because you will be fascinated. He brings additional strength to our already great group of people who work to make the Internet stronger.

Categories
About Internet Society

Announcing an Executive Director for the Internet Society Foundation

Last year we established the Internet Society Foundation, with a plan to make clearer the Internet Society’s grant-making activities, and distinguish them from Internet Society programmes. We announced that we would develop the Foundation over the course of the following year.

Since then, we have introduced the Internet Society Foundation’s new website and opened up the process for applications from ISOC Chapters and Special Interest Groups (SIGs) for the Beyond the Net Grants Programme, which is now housed within the Foundation. This now includes the full range of Beyond the Net Small, Medium, and Large Grants.

In parallel with moving the Beyond the Net Programme, we have been searching for a leader for the Foundation. I am pleased to announce our selection. 

Sarah Armstrong starts in her new role as the Foundation’s Executive Director today, July 1. She brings a wealth of experience to us, having built a career in non-profit, humanitarian, and international development work over many years.

Please join me in extending a warm Internet Society welcome to Sarah. I am sure she will play a key role in ensuring that our financial support for others’ activities is focused and effective. I look forward to a Foundation that, under her leadership, strengthens the Internet both in function and reach, so that it can serve people everywhere.

Categories
About Internet Society

It Is a Challenging Time for the Internet: We Must Not Let It Be Undermined

On 1 September I start work as CEO of the Internet Society. I have a lot to do to live up to the example set by Kathy Brown with all that she achieved during her leadership. It is a great honour, and I appreciate the trust the Board of Trustees has placed in me. I will work daily to earn the same trust from the rest of the Internet community, in part by being transparent about what drives me to do this.

It is a challenging time for the Internet Society, because it is a challenging time for the Internet. For most of the Internet Society’s history, the expansion and development of the Internet could be regarded as an obvious good. There were always those who simply opposed technological development. There were always those who wanted their own interests protected from the Internet. But Internet users historically benefited so much, so obviously, that skepticism about the value of the Internet itself was rare.

Things have changed. Every technology can be used for negative ends. The Internet still, plainly, brings gains in efficiency, convenience, and communications. Yet in the recent past, some of the negative uses have become apparent, which leads some people to ask whether the Internet is just too dangerous. This environment has produced a golden opportunity for those who always preferred a sanitized, tightly-controlled utility to the generative, empowering Internet. These forces claim that only national governments, treaties, laws, regulations, and monopolies can protect us from the problems we face. They do not want the extraordinary collaboration of the Internet. They think there is some mere political choice to be made between the Internet we have known on the one hand, and a tidy, regulated network on the other. If these forces are successful, we will all lose.

The Internet connects people because of its basic design. Each network that joins the Internet does its own thing, but together they are all richer and more reliable. A network of networks cannot be centrally controlled because it has no centre. This is not some accidental design choice we could alter: without this essential feature, we do not have the Internet at all.

For that very reason, we – all humanity – must not let this technology be undermined. We must face, realistically, the challenges that the Internet produces for us all; but we must face them collaboratively and together. The Internet is for everyone, because only everyone can make the global network of networks.

I am inspired by the real Internet – the network of networks that is open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy. This is why I am so happy to become the CEO of the Internet Society at this challenging time. We are strong. Our chapters and members demonstrate the enormous value of the Internet. We wish, in every language and corner of the world, to welcome today those who were not connected yesterday and to reach out to those who will connect tomorrow. We collaborate with others throughout the world who embrace the value of the Internet.

Our potential lies not only in our diversity, but in the power of our community to act as one in service of our mission. Together, our stories of an Internet with people at its heart offer a unifying message for all the world. We can sing as a massed choir, all in harmony, to project the beauty and value of our shared, global heritage. We can take that harmony and common purpose to other communities, to governments, and to boardrooms, and enlist them all in our cause. Our history, linked to the early Internet, teaches us to work with a single mind toward that open, globally-connected, trusted, and secure future.

We will turn away from fear and narrow interests. We will not allow this tool of endless potential to be ruined, whether by vandal or greed. We will support and foster new technologies for all humans. We will promote the security and safety of all who connect.

The Internet Society is for the Internet, and the Internet is for everyone.