The increased use of the internet has contributed to national economic growth, social development, delivery of essential services to citizens by governments and the private sector, as well as, enhancing access to education and health services. This is because of how emerging technologies and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) make use of the Internet, transcending boundaries that previously existed. As a result, some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for governments to strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in Least Developed Countries. The ICT targets also underpin several other SDGs such as quality education, industry innovation, poverty alleviation and improved health.
The benefits of Internet adoption and use have been self-evident and undeniable, as witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic. For the duration of the pandemic it has has been apparent, more than ever, that the internet allowed for continuation of economic, social, health and educational activities when movement was restricted. The pandemic also revealed the disparities in ability to access the internet, stemming from, amongst other things, a lack of network infrastructure, access to routers and mobile phones that can access the Internet as well as the cost of data. Undoubtedly, the Internet is increasingly becoming an integral part of everyday life, albeit, a luxury for many in South Africa and globally. Now more than ever it is important to understand what goes into shaping the Internet and informs digital policy.
Moreover, it is important to understand the Internet Ecosystem, how the Internet is governed, how decisions regarding the Internet are made and by whom. It is also vital to understand how the ordinary citizen may participate in the decision-making process.
The term ‘Internet Ecosystem’ is used to describe the organisations and communities that guide the operation and development of the ICTs that comprise the Internet. Essentially, it is in the Internet Ecosystem that the Internet is governed. During 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) introduced the term ‘Internet Governance’. However, because of the complexities of defining the term, a working definition was adopted.
Internet governance is thus defined as ‘the development and application by Governments, the private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.’ (Tunis Agenda for Information Society, 2005). Accordingly, a variety of interested parties (stakeholders) play a role in deciding how the internet is governed. Regardless of the stakeholders listed in the WSIS definition, there are other stakeholders that contribute to the decision-making process, including the technical community. Internet Governance, therefore, involves a process of several stakeholders, each with expertise in different areas that impact the Internet, deciding on the issues that are aligned with their particular interests. Consequently, the approach taken is that of multi-stakeholder participation.
The governance of the Internet requires the contributions from the various stakeholders because it involves discussing multidisciplinary topics and issues. Although, broadly, Internet governance compromises core themes, which are the management of the technical infrastructure of the Internet and the policy considerations, on a micro-level there are a plethora of issues and topics that need to be taken into consideration. These topics and issues were identified in the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) Report and the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), that affect the Internet, including legal, security, socio-cultural, development, economic, human rights, infrastructure and standardisation considerations.
Considering the array of considerations, a variety of stakeholder groups assist in deciding these issues. The stakeholder groups consist of a variety of organisations which include:
Technical standards bodies such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Institute of Electrical and Electrical Engineers (IEEE).
Organisations that manage resources such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Regional Internet Registry (RIR).
Companies that provide network infrastructure services such as Domain Name Systems (DNS), Network operators, hosting and cloud service providers, Internet exchange Points (IXPs).
Individuals and organisations that use the Internet to communicate with each other and offer services and applications or develop content.
Organisations that provide education and build capacity for developing and using Internet technologies, such as multilateral organisations, educational institutions, and governmental agencies.
Policy and decision-makers involved with local and global policy development and governance.
Members from civil society, including human rights organisations, researchers, academics, NGOs, activists, individual end users, and any other non-commercial and non-government groups representing the public interest.
The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was established to facilitate platform to discuss these issues in a holistic manner, where each stakeholder group is equal, . The IGF is considered to be the most successful outcome of the WSIS process. It is a global platform for dialogue on Internet Governance issues. At the IGF event, which has occurred annually since 2006, the above-mentioned stakeholder groups gather as equals to discuss issues related to Internet Governance. Prior to the global IGF, regional and national Internet Governance Initiatives (NRIs) are also convened annually. At national level stakeholders discuss the same policy and technical areas of consideration, with a focus on the issues plaguing the specific country. It is important to have these issues concerning the governance of the Internet at national level because, it is these discussions that influence the broader discussions at the regional and global IGF.
South Africa has the South African Internet Governance Forum (ZAIGF) which convenes organisations such as the Internet Society South Africa Gauteng Chapter, South African Domain Name Authority (ZADNA), Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) and several private sector companies and civil society organisations; to discuss issues pertinent to governing the Internet in South Africa. In addition the South African School on Internet Governance is held prior to the ZAIGF meeting, so as to grow and upskill individuals interested in Internet Governance matters, from diverse sectors, backgrounds and ages, to enable them to participate in national, regional and international internet governance structures. The discourse had at national level is of utmost importance as it informs and shapes the internet nationally, which also informs regional responses to issues that may arise within a region and similarly, internationally.
The Internet is therefore shaped by the convergence of various communities and organisations, that inform, influence and make use of the internet and the technologies and infrastructures that provide for availability and access to the Internet. It is this exchange of experiences and expertise that brings to light what the technical and policy issues and considerations are, resulting in the drafting of Recommendations for each community and organisation that is affected. The Recommendations provide possible solutions for how the concerns and considerations raised can be combated, improved and developed to ensure that the Internet and moreover ICTs continue to have a positive impact on the economy and society at a macro and micro level. It is therefore important for communities, organisations and individual users to participate in these Internet Governance processes.