Future Tense

What Slate Readers Think About Internet Governance

control of internet.
Our readers check in.

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Throughout November, Futurography focused on internet governance. We looked at the effects of China’s live streaming revolution, how the rest of the world feels about U.S. dominance of the internet, what the internet’s like in North Korea, and much more. But we’re also interested in what you have to say, so we’ve written up the results of our survey on the topic. Futurography will return in January with a course on the legacy of Frankenstein.

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Slate readers don’t always agree with one another. But there was one area of consensus among the readers who wrote in to our survey: When asked to name the most important internet governance debate, nearly all said that it is net neutrality. As Charles Kenny argued in Futurography, that opinion may not hold everywhere in the world—in developing regions, mere access is more important for many. Other issues our respondents identified as important included “transparency in tracking by private companies,” government spying, and open internet borders.

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Most of our readers also agreed about which debates are overblown, pointing out that despite the conspiracy theories, it isn’t really worth talking about who runs the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. In line with Danielle Kehl, who laid out the ins and outs of ICANN for Future Tense, readers seemed to agree that the organization is largely clerical. As one observed, “Those who help govern the internet are not some kind of secret cabal,” but are instead mostly “industry experts and academics.”

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Accordingly, it’s not surprising that most respondents also felt that individual countries shouldn’t have the right to control the internet within their borders—going against calls for internet sovereignty that have been pushed by countries such as China. While one reader held that the issue is too complex for a simple yes or no answer, most others seemed convinced that information should be able to flow freely between and within nations. One ambitious reader went so far as to propose, “The internet should be engineered in such a way to make it impossible for a government to even have the choice either way.” That may be easier said than done, though: “Realistically there’s nothing that can be done to change this,” one reader observed.

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The question of practicality also haunted responses to a question about whether countries should work to preserve a free and open internet. Most felt that nations should, but only a few readers laid out ideas about how to do it. One suggested “requiring network neutrality and prohibiting zero-rating,” a type of service in which an internet provider “allows internet users to access certain sites or apps without accumulating data charges,” as we explained on our cheat sheet. Another got more specific, suggesting that we “mandate the separation between content creators/owners (on the one hand) and ISPs/backbone (on the other).” As that same respondent noted, it may also be important to “work on international oversight so that companies can’t simply circumvent restrictions by hopping a border,” though that too presumably presents another set of complications.

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When it came to which internet governance trends truly worried them, though, some readers didn’t seem especially concerned about nation states. To the contrary, many echoed Emily Taylor’s assertion that companies—not countries—control of the internet. “Vertical integration of content providers and ISPs” troubled one reader, and another wrote that “mega media mergers are a concern.” Still, a few did discuss issues originating in specific countries, as did one who pointed to the U.K. Investigatory Powers Act 2016—a recent bill that gave government authorities the right to hack and otherwise surveil individuals—and another who gestured more broadly to “China’s ability and willingness to control IT content.”

The United States, for its own part, did not come out clean, with one reader claiming that we have a “Congress and SCOTUS who clearly have little or no understanding of how the internet … works.” We applaud the readers who took the time to find out over the past month.

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