How should the internet develop after Snowden? New commission aims to find out

An independent “Global Commission on Internet Governance” was launched at Davos on Wednesday, promising an in-depth two-year study of how the internet should be run. This will take into account the tensions between freedom, security and governance — as in, who should run key functions of the internet — and the shadow of Edward Snowden will no doubt loom large over proceedings.

The commission is chaired by former Swedish prime minister and current foreign minister Carl Bildt, and the other 24 members range from those who will probably support online surveillance (former U.S. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and former GCHQ director David Omand) to those who will most likely take the opposing view (European parliamentarian Marietje Schaake and web scientist Wendy Hall).

“Internet governance is too important to be left just to governments,” said Patricia Lewis, one of the commission members and a research director at Chatham House, the London thinktank that has launched the project alongside the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which is based in Waterloo, Ontario.

“The internet is a fundamental part of the global economy and how we manage its future will be decisive in facilitating development for all. Finding a way through the issues of access, privacy, security, protection and surveillance requires in-depth consideration and the wisdom that the Global Commission will provide,” Lewis added.

According to the launch statement, the commission will act as a public consultation platform and work with various civil society, private sector and academic groups. Its four “key themes” include enhancing governance legitimacy, stimulating innovation, ensuring human rights online, and avoiding systemic risks.

What difference will it make? Hard to tell – two years is a long time, and plenty of people are itching to reform internet governance as soon as possible. They won’t achieve their goal that quickly, but plans may already be quite advanced in 2016.

There’s a big conference on the subject coming up in Brazil in April, which has been convened by the Brazilian government as a direct response to the Snowden revelations. ICANN, the U.S.-based body that runs the domain name system, is also in the process of planting roots in other locations around the world.

It will be particularly interesting to see how much the outcomes of the new commission and these other forums take into account the views of participants from the developing world. That’s where the internet’s future growth lies, after all.