Twenty-five years ago, almost no one knew the Internet existed. Today, a third of the world's population uses it as a source of communication, commerce, entertainment and education. The other two-thirds -- some 4.5 billion people -- are within reach, if only we can agree on how best to support its development.
There's the rub. For the past 10 years, we have been engaged in a debate over how Internet development should proceed and how the network itself should be managed. On one side are those who favor the distributed approach to development and management that has worked well to this point -- an approach led largely by the private sector, entrepreneurs and technology pioneers. On the other side are those who favor a more centralized, top-down approach, with governments playing a direct role in managing, operating and governing the Internet.
The differences will be evident again this week when officials from more than 75 countries -- representing the two philosophical extremes and a lot of points in between -- convene in Geneva for a policy forum, the International Telecommunication Union's World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum. But I am hopeful that there will be a quieting of the stridency that has characterized the debate in the past year and that has made it hard for people on one side to hear those on the other.
For instance, I think that those of us who favor the existing model of development -- a group, I freely admit, that includes my own organization -- should redouble our efforts to understand the underlying concerns of governments that want to be more directly involved in the Internet. These governments are concerned about privacy and consumer protection; they want to know who owns the Internet infrastructure in their countries and how it is managed. Governments have a stake in these things, and they should be part of the discussions.
On the other hand, I would hope policy-makers and governments would keep an open mind about the approach we advocate with respect to Internet development. It's true that this approach puts many key Internet-related decisions in the hands of businesses, computer scientists, technical organizations and even end users, with a different role for governments than they are used to. But the process isn't disorganized and doesn't reflect a lack of governance. On the contrary, it's a model of governance that has served the Internet extraordinarily well, leading to innovations and infrastructure development that may not have come about at all with a top-down model, and certainly wouldn't have come as quickly.
One place that the multi-stakeholder model is on display is in the approach to Internet security. Internet security is a serious matter. Because the Internet is all about connections, a problem halfway around the world can quickly spread to become everyone's problem. The question, however, is how to reduce these incidents without creating problems that are worse, and without choking off innovation, the flow of information and individual choice.
An enormous amount of attention is already being focused on the different aspects of security by technical groups, policy-makers, law-enforcement bodies, businesses and end users. While we haven't eradicated the problem, these different groups are working on ways to handle it while making appropriate trade-offs. Security is one of those areas where the collective work of different groups is vital. The solutions won't come overnight, but they will come. We could go ahead trying to score rhetorical points, but there is too much at stake for us to waste resources on that. Many emerging economies are far behind developed economies when it comes to infrastructure development and percentage of citizens online, diminishing their ability to participate in the global Internet economy. We need to close the gap.
The potential payoff is huge -- and not only for the world's unconnected. The Internet's growth has already led to an explosion of amazing applications. It's exciting to imagine what may come in the next burst of innovation, and as the remaining two-thirds of the world's population comes online.
But in order for this to happen, we need to stop talking past one another and work together. If we do, there's no limit to what we can accomplish.
Lynn St. Amour is president and chief executive of the Internet Society.