“What is happening is that networks are challenging hierarchies everywhere in a number of different ways,” said Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden. “This is essentially a good thing because it empowers individuals, nations, and others. But of course it unsettles some of the hierarchies that are then fighting back.”

Mr. Bildt spoke on September 26, 2012 at an event entitled “The Future of Internet Governance: Freedom, Security, and Development.” The event was co-hosted by IPI and the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and featured a panel of five speakers from both the private and public sectors. Topics of discussion ranged from cyber security, to social mobilization, to Internet access in the world’s least developed countries (LDC).

Mr. Bildt said Sweden supported the existing multi-stakeholder governance model of the Internet.

The discussion was a timely one, occurring shortly before a December meeting in Dubai of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), where all 193 UN member states will renegotiate a UN treaty called the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR). The treaty, which currently covers telephone, television, and radio networks, may be extended to cover the Internet. It raises questions about who should control the Internet and how. The meeting has prompted critics to charge that additional UN governance may jeopardize Internet freedom.

Hamadoun Touré, Secretary-General of the ITU, however, explained that the agenda for this meeting is more technical and practical than political. He said, “The conference in Dubai is revisiting the ITR because we are afraid that there will not be enough infrastructure to carry the data we see today… That is not about freedom of expression, it is not about content at all.”

“Two-thirds of the world’s population still does not have access to the Internet,” he added. “The issue is about affordability. In the 49 LDC countries, the cost of connectivity to broadband is higher than the monthly income.”

Panelists then engaged in debate over how to properly govern web content and how to evolve the Internet’s framework. Many of the challenges that lie ahead, they observed, were due to contradictions between universal rights online and national sovereignty laws that overlap those rights.

“We’ve all theoretically agreed to universal rights, and what you’re seeing is an erosion of that agreement,” said James Andrew Lewis, Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “That is for me the fundamental issue here: sovereignty, universal rights, and moving to a new model of governance that retains the democracy and openness that we’ve come to expect.”

“The Internet is really powerful stuff,” said Ross LaJeunesse, Head of International Organizations and Free Expression at Google. “By 2016, in the G20 alone, the Internet is going to be driving about 4.2 trillion dollars of economic activity each and every year, and that’s just in the G20… the growth is exponential.”

Mr. LaJeunesse added, “We’ve never seen a technology or anything else for that matter that has broken the boundaries between cultures and worlds like the Internet has. There has never been something of this nature that allows people to communicate and promotes cross-cultural understanding. It’s completely unprecedented.”

He continued, “Something this powerful is only powerful because it’s also disruptive. It upends every existing model, economic and otherwise that the world has seen. When something like that happens, there are winners and there are losers, and people are upset, and people try to hold on to the old ways of doing things, and that’s the natural course of it all.”

Also speaking were Dr. Catalina Botero Marino, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Organization of American States (OAS); Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of the United Kingdom; Danish Minister Christian Friis Bach; and Ambassador Mara Marinaki of the EU, who each shared additional insights on the potentials and challenges the Internet holds for the future.

The event involved online users from around the world, who were watching on IPI’s live webcast, with a live Twitter session under the hash-tag #fxinternet. Panelists entertained questions from online users through this forum.

A Twitter participant asked, “Will societies become more uniform or more polarized as freedom of speech can confirm and deny others’ prejudices?” Mr. Bildt said, “I think it will be both. Societies are becoming both more global and more local at the same time… This is the world of hyperconnectivity.” He added, “It’s not the net creating polarization, the net is exposing a polarization that is there in societies in the world.”

Terje Rød-Larsen, President of IPI, gave welcoming remarks. The event was moderated by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at IPI.

Watch event video: