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January 2012: A busy start to the year in Internet governance

Published on 07 February 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

If this year can be judged by its first month, 2012 will be a very eventful year for Internet governance. The Internet is part of the global communication structure, impacting everything from the geo-politics of the major powers to the lives of ordinary people. It makes Internet governance highly topical. This year will inevitably bring intensive debate on institutional arrangements for global Internet governance, online human rights, and cybersecurity, to name a few. Fasten your seatbelts!


January 2012: “zoom out” view

January brought the end of the dominant paradigm that the Internet, as a new technology, requires new legal and policy rules. The end of this ‘policy uniqueness’ was echoed in Vint Cerf’s article on the Internet and human rights, in Michael Posner’s speech on Internet freedom, in Megaupload’s action, ACTA, and lastly, in Twitter’s new policy. Each one in its own way showed that laws and rules apply to the online world just as they do to the real world.  

The Internet’s policy uniqueness paradigm can be traced back to Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and his key statement:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

The policy uniqueness paradigm, skeptical of the government’s role, influenced an early Internet governance architecture. In 1998, when ICANN was established, governments were excluded from ICANN’s decision-making. During the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS; 2002–2005) the hottest debated issue was role of governments in Internet governance. It ended up with the Tunis compromise and the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Like every compromise, the IGF involved different expectations. Some perceived the IGF as the ultimate form of Internet governance. Others saw it as a transitory phase towards some other, mainly intergovernmental arrangement.

Today, the Tunis compromise is being revisited and the future architecture of the IGF is being negotiated in the United Nations. The world has changed substantially since 2005 when the IGF was established. Facebook and Twitter were unknown. Since then, China has become the country with the highest number of Internet users. Internet advertising is bigger than traditional advertising. After the financial crisis in 2008, governments have regained their position as key players in addressing various crisis issues of the modern world. How will this affect Internet governance in 2012 and beyond?

New, emerging Internet governance architecture should reflect these changes; otherwise it will be irrelevant and could contribute to the instability of the Internet. While the old paradigm of policy uniqueness has ended, it would be risky to approach the Internet in the same way as other global policy issues, such as climate change or the financial crises. The Internet has its own specificities that should be taken into account (a decentralised nature that facilitates creativity on the edge, evolves dynamically, and involves non-state actors to a greater degree). Moreover, experience from Internet governance could help in addressing the increasingly important issue of ‘legitimacy deficit’ worldwide. Pressed with crises or rising expectations, people now expect more inclusive and effective governance. The Internet has become a platform for more inclusive policy-making.

See also: Comics on “policy uniqueness” of the Internet

January 2012: Chronology

4 January: The Internet is not a human right

This was the first controversial incursion to Internet politics in 2012. Vint Cerf’s article triggered a heated debate centred on the understanding of what constitutes human rights and which human rights are relevant for the Internet. On one hand, there are those who support Vint Cerf’s argument that human rights are mainly civil and political (e.g. freedom of expression, freedom of assembly). Like Cerf, they argue that the Internet is not a human right; it is simply a tool for ensuring the protection of political and civil rights. On the other hand, there are those who take a broader view of human rights, one that includes social, economic, and cultural rights. For them, access to the Internet (both infrastructure and content) is a human right. In France and Finland, access to the Internet is a citizen’s right stipulated in the national law. The debate triggered by Cerf’s article also provided building blocks for considering Internet-related rights as a third generation of human rights (so-called human solidarity rights), such as the right to environment, the right of future generations). Will the multifaceted impact of the Internet on the political, social, and economic conditions of each of us require a third approach, beyond the traditional dichotomy of political and economic human rights?

See also:

12 January: ICANN opens registration for new domain names

After long preparations, ICANN finally pressed the button and started the process of introducing new domains. The discussion was heated, with many governments, trademark lobbies, and international organisations expressing critical views. The success or failure of the new policy will influence the future of ICANN as an organisation.

17 January: Michael Posner on the priorities of US Internet Diplomacy in 2012

Posner’s lecture was the first US statement on Internet politics in 2012. He highlighted a few trends for 2012. First, he reiterated the USA’s strong focus on the Internet’s human rights policy. Second, ‘Let me state for the record that international law applies to online behavior. Full stop.’ This statement clearly dismissed the policy uniqueness approach to the Internet. Third, he emphasised the corporate social responsibility of the Internet sector by applying John Ruggie’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Last, Posner highlighted the following initiatives that could influence the global Internet space: the Global Network Initiative, the Coalition for Freedom Online and the Digital Defenders Partnership.

18 January: The first global Internet Strike

The SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) proposal triggered the first global Internet strike, a strike that included a blackout of many websites, including Wikipedia. The Internet strike influenced many US congressmen to withdraw their support for the SOPA proposal. It has now been shelved. It remains to be seen whether SOPA terms will be reintroduced in some other way, especially, in the case of a change of administration after the US presidential election. The tension between Hollywood (protection of copyright) and Silicon Valley (resistance to a stricter online copyright regime) will remain. Aldo Matteucci proposed an innovative way out of the current stalemate in online copyright policy by introducing the concept of ‘capping’ revenues from intellectual property.

19 January: Legal action against Megaupload

One day after SOPA was shelved, the US Department of Justice initiated a major international action by shutting down the file-sharing site Megaupload. Some commentators argued that even without SOPA, current legal mechanisms provide the basis for quite tough actions against copyright infringements.

26 January: Signing ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) by 22 EU States

The signing of ACTA triggered protests in Poland, Slovenia, and a few other EU member states. After a lull in ACTA’s public visibility, it again camei into the focus of Internet governance.   The following group of comments could be identified:

  • ACTA is an example of ‘policy laundering’, which occurs when national governments try to reintroduce an issue previously defeated at national level through international treaties and organisations. This criticism argues that ACTA’s aim is to bring in SOPA through back-door (international agreements).[1]
  • ACTA shows an increasing relevance of implementation (or lack of it) in international relations. On a substantive level, ACTA’s rules are already stipulated in WIPO and WTO conventions. ACTA’s main focus is on implementation mechanisms for intellectual property rights.
  • ACTA is criticised for bypassing WIPO and WTO as the main bodies for regulating intellectual property rights. While the motivation of ACTA is clear (avoiding blockade by developing countries), the rationale remains questionable. Many aspects of ACTA need to be implemented in non-ACTA countries, where the most of the counterfeiting is done. How can one expect implementation of these rules in countries which were not involved, or at least consulted, in their drafting?
  • Due to the lack of communication or real intentions, ACTA is perceived as a secret, almost conspiratory negotiation. The global public, empowered by the Internet, requires transparency, although it could tolerate translucency for the sake of efficiency in negotiations (translucency – being informed about negotiations without knowing every detail during the negotiation process).

27 January: New Twitter policy on filtering (or censorship)

Twitter introduced a new policy of blocking some tweets if they contradict national laws. Is this another confirmation of the trend of anchoring the Internet in existing national and international laws, and departing from earlier assertions of policy uniqueness of the Internet? It is also interesting to note how Twitter presented this new policy: the bad news is we will have to filter tweets; the good news is we will do it transparently: We will inform you when we censor your tweets. In this day and age, when there is a big industry in packaging unpopular decisions in nice trappings, Twitter’s communication is refreshingly honest.


  • [1] One example of policy laundering was the ‘Clipper Chip’ (controlling encryption software through a key escrow). In the mid-1990s, faced with strong opposition from privacy and free-speech circles in the USA, the US government tried policy laundering. The US government proposed the Clipper Approach in the Wassenaar Arrangement (a regime for the restriction of sale and ‘dual use’ of technology). The proposal was resisted by Japan and Scandinavian countries.



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