Let me start with this, a more common utterance than not that I have often said as well as heard: when it comes to the Internet, I am not a technical person. What I mean is that I did not major in computer engineering, website development, computer science, telecommunications, or a related field. Moreover, while I am sure I could figure it out, I never rooted my old Nexus 4 or flashed a ROM. Now, that does not mean I do not understand the importance of deploying Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) or how an Internet exchange point (IXP) works, nor does it imply that how the Internet functions is automatically inconsequential to me. On the contrary, I have a deeply rooted passion for the Internet and information and communications technologies (ICTs) that dates back to me fixing our family computer when I was a kid.
As I entered adulthood, I began to realize that human and social progress is not as linear of a process that my privileged upbringing led me to assume it was; it is a struggle. Then, when my worldview expanded significantly through travel and consequence and my sense of time was elongated by both experience and a massive existential crisis, I knew that – as cringeworthily idealistic and naïve as it may sound – we as a species had to do more to safeguard the wealth of knowledge as well as the beauty of culture, art, and consciousness that has been curated by civilisations and nature throughout the ages. Indeed, the motivation that drives me to care deeply about the Internet is the fact that it is an extension of human consciousness and a crucial tool to advance our progress and development as a whole, as well as make sure we are still here and perhaps elsewhere long after I am gone.
If we breakdown the ‘our’ mentioned in the previous sentence, though, we find communities – the molecules of society – followed by individuals, the atoms. In many ways, these communities reflect the network structures we have created; the Internet is a reflection of ourselves – and that is saying a lot considering user comments sections. Both communities and the people that compose them also constitute a global resource filled with competing interests, different ideas for what progress looks like, and complex structures – some of which embrace or critically analyse change while others outright resist it. When it comes to the individuals that are involved in the Internet community, those people who spend countless, thankless hours working tirelessly to ensure users from Mexico to Mongolia can enjoy the same Internet (theoretically at least), almost everyone seems to have a reason why they participate. Some have more traditional paths, such as those who studied engineering or computer science and ended up at a technology company, or a tech-savvy entrepreneur who started an Internet service provider (ISP) – those individuals, by the way, fall into the aforementioned ‘technical people’ category – as well as those who have had a more unorthodox journey, majoring in international relations, design, and even English literature or other humanities. Then again, content is king, so shouldn’t the humanities have a significant prescence within Internet governance fora as well?
Of course, I know that constantly reiterating that I am not a technical person is an inane disclaimer – something I realised when I was working on the Internet Governance Forum’s (IGF) IXP and IPv6 Best Practice Forums as an Internet Society (ISOC) ambassador to IGF 10 in João Pessoa, Brazil. By the time my formal introduction to the Internet governance community in Brazil was over and the outcome documents were published, I had been able to contribute significantly to them with the skills I had, not the knowledge I lacked. In fact, my lack of knowledge regarding network architecture did not stop me from fully participating, and my fellow collaborators often expressed their appreciation that someone unfamiliar with the technical language could understand, contribute to, and enhance the documents.
One point that DiploFoundation’s Introduction to Internet Governance course clearly illustrated when I took the course in spring 2016 is how the technical side of the Internet, while undoubtedly an incredibly significant one, is only one part of a multifaceted entity. We need dedicated volunteers and professionals to work on protecting human and civil rights online, ensuring that legal frameworks governing the Internet are transparent and accountable, and to promote the coexistence of privacy and security just as much as we need individuals to work on border gateway protocol (BGP) networking. Such voices can also become a voice of advocacy in the Internet governance community, for instance, concerning the role of Internet governance in development, the need for greater and more effective digital media literacy training, and the connection between climate change and the Internet – none of which require perquisite technical knowledge.
Our respective affiliations do not have to dictate how we work to achieve these aims. A human rights activist and a network engineer, for instance, are not – and perhaps, should not be – inherently mutually exclusive. One of the greatest advantages of the multistakeholder model that the Internet community has pioneered for decades is that we as a global community of passionate individuals and dedicated organizations can leverage each other’s strengths, diverse experience, various skills, knowledge sets, networks, and perspectives to ultimately generate more inclusive and sustainable outcomes, create better policies, enrich existing processes, and foster a more robust, secure, and open Internet. This means bridging knowledge gaps by bridging communities, welcoming new ideas, working modalities, processes, or solutions as well as new people, and bringing people with a diverse set of skills and knowledge together to broaden both our understanding as well as our collaboration so we can continue to create something that can benefit everyone, especially those who are already connected – together.