This article is part of a series highlighting the work of IEEE’s global offices.
On 18 November a spirited lunch debate hosted by Victor Negrescu, a Romanian member of the European Parliament from the Socialists and Democrats group, on whether Internet governance should drive innovation took place in the European Parliament. Internet governance is the development and application of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.
Representatives from the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA), Digital Europe, the European Commission, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—better known as ICANN—convened before 30 policymakers and industry representatives. Data protection and data sharing were a central theme of the discussions.
Negrescu opened the meeting by noting that an open Internet with its pervasive and expansive reach can transform people’s personal and professional lives. He explained it has enabled new levels of social engagement and networking, generated explosive opportunities in commerce and business development, and opened new ways for working and leisure. He outlined that the Internet revolution has given rise to increasing levels of connectivity that now go beyond just the Internet, to the Internet of Things and People. It also has given rise to unprecedented innovative ideas fuelled by connectedness and powered by open access.
However, he noted, open innovation and collaboration also means massive exchange of data and information that bring up issues as to how that information is stored, accessed, and used.
Now people enter a world where they have to weigh the complex risk of such openness against their security, privacy, and anonymity, he said. One question prevails: how do we find a balance between the desire and critical global need for an open Internet and the right to protect privacy and ensure anonymity, and safeguard our citizens?
Today, companies use people’s personal data to make money he continued. This new business model has serious negative effects on the right of privacy and individual freedom.
Konstantinos Karachalios, the managing director of the IEEE-SA, advocated for the adoption of better technical foundations and standards that cannot be easily manipulated. Although he agreed people’s data could be used in order to be able to survey and track criminal activities, Karachalios argued that this should be an exception and not the general rule; in a different situation democracy would be greatly hindered.
Walter van Den Weiden, chair of the Market Regulation Group within Digital Europe, said that a balanced approach between data protection and allowing businesses to do their jobs could be struck. He advocated for data protection measures that do not create additional burdens and obstacles for businesses.
There was a broad consensus among the participants on the need to follow a multi-stakeholder approach on Internet governance. Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, known as BRICS, are leaning toward Internet governance. Their role and influence should not be underestimated. They seem to have realized the importance of having a multi-stakeholder approach instead of inter-governmental governance model, and this is highly positive. The United States seemed to agree that relinquishing control over the Internet in the coming year was the best model to govern would be the multi-stakeholders approach.
Other speakers emphasized how the Internet is changing and reshaping the world and the valuable role it plays in tackling unemployment. Megan Richards, the principle advisor for the European Commission Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, which is known as DG Connect, noted how Europe and specifically Romania is rapidly being transformed into Internet hubs.
ICANN vice president Jean Jacque Sahel noted the Internet is one of the few remaining places in the world where people can express themselves because it is completely decentralized, totally open, and provides unhindered communication. He said this liberty should be protected at all costs.
In practice this means that the Internet is innovation without permission, he said. The world may slowly shift toward governance of the Internet, but it still moves forward without a single central authority, although with multiple gatekeepers, he said. This is essential for the Internet’s further advancement, he concluded.
The panel also expressed the need for policymakers to take into account and keep up with the ongoing Internet changes. Negrescu and Brando Benifei (Italy, Socialists and Democrats) pointed out the European Commission often creates unnecessary complications and proposes complex regulatory frameworks whose immediate effects are questionable. The participants agreed, however, that it is necessary to balance the short- and long-term approaches. Karachalios noted that a Westphalian (non-interventionism in another state. States can regulate as they please without any accountability) approach to the Internet is being noticed, and this is alarming because it could lead to the Internet’s fragmentation. Some countries are feeling threatened by the Internet and the revolutions that it is spawning, thus building barriers, not breaking them down. The EU should not fall into this trap, he said.
The EU has always been a soft power with standards, and respect for human rights. It should not shy away from making use of that power. It should set up rules and regulatory framework and lead by example. The EU should not, under any circumstance, isolate itself from the rest of the world, he concluded.
Karine Iffour is the director of IEEE Business Development Europe, based in the IEEE Brussels office.