What Is Internet Governance?

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
April 23, 2014


Disclosures of controversial U.S. surveillance practices, including the monitoring of some foreign leaders, have reignited an international debate over Internet governance. Some countries hope to leverage the scandal to diminish the influence Washington has over some Internet infrastructure—principally processes managed by the U.S.-based nonprofit, ICANN, that coordinates the unique identifiers (Internet Protocol addresses and domain names) that people and devices use to connect on the Internet. (ICANN is an acronym for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.) But a broader discussion of Internet governance touches on a range of public policy issues, including freedom of expression, trade, privacy, cybersecurity, and sovereignty.

What is Internet governance?

The term Internet governance has evolved over time, and various groups have attempted to develop working definitions. As the Internet first opened to commerce and the wider public in the mid-1990s, the term referred to a limited set of policy issues associated with the global synchronization and management of domain names (e.g., samplesite.com) and IP addresses (e.g.,

But as the Internet became a unified medium for all types of information, the definition broadened considerably. In 2005, the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society defined Internet governance 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 programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”

As contentious public policy issues have emerged, the concept of Internet governance has conflated management of the technical resources necessary for its stability and continued expansion with discussion of behaviors emerging from the use of the Internet at what is known as the content layer.

Internet users surf at a cyber cafe in Kuala Lumpur August 7, 2009. (Photo: Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)
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