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The IDN Jargon Buster #3: History of Global Internet Governance

ARPANET 1969. *Source: thanks to BBN/DARPA* [License](

In the past few years, the phrase “internet governance” has become a buzzword to refer to any politics related to the internet regulations, institutions, agenda, and decision-making processes. Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) remain an important part of global internet governance, with the early internet of the 1990s only being limited to the ASCII character set. The metric of how IDNs have been accepted, stored and processed within the Domain Name System has been measured in Universal Acceptance.

The importance of multi-stakeholder involvement

Internet governance is an important term that permeates into a global discourse where national leaders, experts, bureaucrats, politicians, activists, and the private sector are increasingly involved in discussing the future of the internet and what it means to them. The importance of linguistic diversity on the internet continues to be a key discussion point.

But, what does ‘internet governance’ actually mean? In short, according to Mueller, Mathiason, and Klein, internet governance can be understood as a set of decision making by various actors to establish policies, rules, and procedures about the internet.

Historically, internet governance highlights the importance of multistakeholders’ involvement in the decision-making processes. This is denoted by the more frequent use of the word “global” in internet governance, rather than international that typically refers only to nation-state actors. This also reflects the multilayered and diffuse decision making processes of internet governance taking place in transnational, regional, national, and even local. As a consequence, the political agenda and interests coming from a multitude of actors inevitably shape and affect the dynamics of global internet governance.

Understanding the history of global internet governance gives us a glimpse of the past developments, the current state of affairs, and the potential prospects of the internet itself.

Summarising the historical milestones

The dynamics of global internet governance also situate Domain Name System (DNS) as one of the recurring contentious issues given its centrality in the architecture of the internet. Topics related to DNS such as Universal Acceptance (UA) and Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) are regularly discussed in various global internet governance meetings. In this series of IDN Jargon Buster, we will summarize important historical milestones of the global internet governance and their significance.

1969: ARPANET Project was started under the United States (US) government’s sponsorship that eventually gave birth to the internet.. This project was intended to serve defense and military purposes in the height of the Cold War. The initial governance was mostly technical and under the US government’s supervision.

1983: The domain name system (DNS) was invented by Paul Mockapetris and his team. As the number of networked computers increased, Mockapetris and his team invented a distributed domain name to facilitate communication better. This system, according to Mockapetris, was created to “accommodate diversity without unnecessary restriction”.

1984: The network between supercomputing facilities expanded beyond the US by using NSFNET’s TCP/IP network. This moment started a more coordinated governance of the internet between the US and other countries who were connected with the internet network.

1986: The US government established the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to ensure internet technical standards. Since its establishment, the IETF mostly consists of technical experts and researchers.

1988: IANA (Internet Assigned Number Authority) was founded to replace functions of Jon Postel and Joyce Reynolds (ARPANET researchers) who were responsible for network’s addresses and allocation. This was also the moment when DNS root zone’s authority was changed from individual experts of ARPANET to an institution under the US government supervision.

1992: The establishment of Internet Society, an advocacy organization promoting internet governance agenda such as openness, development, and use of the internet. Internet Society consists of various stakeholders from individuals, business firms, academia, and state actors.

1998: ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) was established as a multi-stakeholder group focusing on coordinating the allocation of the internet’s unique identifiers and setting up procedures for databases. IANA was incorporated into ICANN.

2001: The Convention on Cybercrime, or Budapest Convention, was signed by Council of Europe. The convention is the first international treaty and legal framework between state actors about internet related issues.

2001: The term “Universal Acceptance” was proposed by Ram Mohan to address the necessity of digitally inclusive internet, particularly on Domain Name System (DNS). Universal Acceptance is an idea to treat TLDs and IDNs equally and, the internet itself to be interoperable in any languages and scripts.

2002: International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN body, concluded Plenipotentiary Conference in Marrakesh, Morocco. It highlighted the importance of international arrangements on internet governance, particularly under or led by the UN. It also implied the preparation of first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

2003: First WSIS was held in Geneva. This was the first time when the topic of internet governance was formally discussed as an international issue under the UN. The event identified different visions of the internet by UN member countries. This meeting led to the establishment of the Working Group of Internet Governance (WGIG) under the UN Secretary General.

2003: IETF published a set of standards for a more diverse character in support for Universal Acceptance. Previously, the internet system only recognized ASCII characters (including the letters a-z, the digits 0-9 and the hyphen character) which limited the digitally inclusive internet.

2005: Second WSIS was held in Tunis 2005. This event produced Tunis Agenda for the Information Society that laid the foundational precedence of multi-stakeholder governance in internet governance. This document also implied the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as a global multi-stakeholder forum. This also led to the creation of regional Internet Governance Forum for the years to come.

2011: This year marks the Global South turn on the internet governance as India, Brazil, and South Africa attended a summit in relation to the internet governance. The Global South countries started to be much more vocal in voicing their discontent with the existing internet norms, regulations, and arrangements that were far more favorable to Western countries.

2014: NetMundial Initiative was launched by Brazil with the support of the Global South countries. This initiative was aimed to envision a new internet governance against the Western countries hegemony, particularly in responding to the Edward Snowden scandal revealing the US surveillance. This initiative was ended in June 2016 due to lack of supports and major disagreements.

2016: ICANN and the US government signed an agreement to end the US government’s involvement in ICANN and IANA. ICANN officially became a global multistakeholder institution on the internet governance. In the same year, the European Union (EU) started to enact the General Data Protection Rights (GDPR), the first most comprehensive law on cyberspace beyond national territory. The EU GDPR arguably becomes a new reference of cyberspace regulation in the world given its relative comprehensiveness.

2022: The UN began a process of the creation of the international cybercrime treaty. While not directly related to the internet governance, this process set out a new precedence in the legalization and institutionalization of internet related issues on global level.

The role of both state actors and non state actors

The aforementioned milestones show the long decades development of the global internet governance. The role of both state actors and non state actors have been equally present throughout the internet history. This drives the normalcy of multi-stakeholderism that is rather unique compared to other global governance. Indeed, this article can not capture all other equally important milestones in the internet governance.

However, we do hope that these aforementioned explanations already served its purpose: to give an overview of where we were, where we are, and where we are heading in the future when it comes to the internet governance.

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