Skip to Content

The Internet’s Future Depends on Maintaining Its Free Spirit

Regulation of the Internet goes against the principles that have made it a such a phenomenal success.
December 4, 2012

A great deal has happened in the 50 years since J.C.R. Licklider wrote his famous “Inter-Galactic Network” memo—the first conception of what eventually became the Internet—in April 1963.

Perhaps the most profound observation made about the early Internet was that it was unlikely to spread across the globe. And yet, slowly at first, and faster with the advent of the World Wide Web, the Internet has found purchase on every continent–even Antarctica. This penetration is a consequence of the independent decisions made by hundreds of thousands of Internet operators whose business models range from nonprofit to for-profit to government operated and every other variation you can imagine.

But a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), taking place in Dubai this week, threatens to stifle further Internet expansion and innovation.

The protocols that fuel the Internet emerged from research sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department and later the U.S. National Science Foundation. Eventually, research and development found support from the private sector and non-U.S. governments around the world. The standards that underpin the Internet created an interoperable platform and framework that allowed anyone to implement a piece of the network and try to find someone willing to interconnect.

One secret to the Internet’s success has been its “loosely coupled” character. In other words, no one was coerced to join or use it or to implement it. Interconnection of the networks of the Internet was accomplished under bilateral or multilateral agreements among the implementing entities. The freedom to choose the equipment, software, services, and business models has been key to the widespread investment in Internet infrastructure. The Internet protocol itself is only loosely coupled to the underlying transport, giving rise to the slogan “IP on everything!” (pun intended). The fact that the packets don’t know what they are carrying as payload is another loose coupling: only the endpoints in the net need to understand the meaning of the bits in the packets—the network can stay blissfully unaware of the meaning of the packet payloads. This feature allows the creation of new applications without altering the underlying network.

Freedom of expression—to speak and be heard—is enshrined in the Declaration of Universal Human Rights, and the Internet, along with the World Wide Web, has become a strong enabler of these rights. The advent of Internet-enabled mobile phones has enhanced the power of the Internet and empowered users around the world.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Internet’s development and evolution is the creation of a variety of bottom-up institutions dedicated to maintaining and evolving Internet’s functionality and capacity. The Internet Configuration Control Board (ICCB), created in 1979, became the Internet Activities Board around 1984 and, upon the creation of the Internet Society under whose auspices it operates, morphed into the Internet Architecture Board in 1992.

The Internet Engineering Task Force is a multi-stakeholder organization first convened in 1986. You can’t even “join”—all you can do is show up and participate. The Internet Society is an umbrella organization with many chapters around the world with open membership—you don’t have to pay to be a member of the global organization. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was created in 1998 with a distinctly multi-stakeholder charter and structure allowing the technical community, private sector, civil society, and governments to participate as equal partners in policy development for Internet address and domain name assignments.

The five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) were created over a period of time, some preceding the creation of ICANN. They, too, are multi-stakeholder—the public is welcome to attend all meetings. Only members can vote to elect board and advisory council members, but anyone can participate in the discussions and the assessment of consensus on policy matters.

The point is that bottom-up, multi-stakeholder models are far better suited to Internet policy development than purely intergovernmental processes such as those typical of international treaty organizations. Governments should be involved, and they have important responsibilities to their citizens, but the voice of all affected stakeholders should have weight in policy development. For these and many other reasons, I believe that the freedom of the Internet must be protected and defended through institutions that, themselves, exhibit the openness that we all benefit from on the Internet today.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

DeepMind’s cofounder: Generative AI is just a phase. What’s next is interactive AI.

“This is a profound moment in the history of technology,” says Mustafa Suleyman.

What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines

New variants will pose a challenge, but early signs suggest the shots will still boost antibody responses.

Human-plus-AI solutions mitigate security threats

With the right human oversight, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can help keep business and customer data secure

Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation

From million-dollar slide shows to Steve Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone, a bit of show business never hurt plain old business.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.