One year ago, many Internet users were engaged in a contentious debate over the question of who should govern the Internet. The debate pitted the current model led by a United States based organization known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (supported by the U.S.) against a government-led, United Nations-style model under which countries such as China and Russia could assert greater control over Internet governance.
The differences between the two approaches were never as stark as some portrayed since the current model grants the U.S. considerable contractual power over ICANN, but the fear of greater foreign government control over the Internet led to strong political opposition to UN involvement.
While supporters of the current model ultimately prevailed at a UN conference in Dubai last December where most Western democracies, including Canada, strongly rejected major Internet governance reforms, the issue was fundamentally about trust. Given that all governments have become more vocal about Internet matters, the debate was never over whether government would be involved, but rather about who the global Internet community trusted to lead on governance matters.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues that the Internet governance choice was a relatively easy one at the time, but in recent weeks the revelations about widespread U.S. secret surveillance of the Internet may cause many to rethink their views. Starting with the first disclosures in early June about the collection of phone metadata, the past two months have been marked by a dizzying array of reports that reveal a massive U.S. surveillance infrastructure that covers the globe and seeks access to virtually all Internet-based communications.