It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea—I think for the first time. A number of colleagues have remarked that this is a peculiar subject for debate and have asked me to clarify the debate’s purpose. I should make clear that that group does not include the Minister, who has positioned himself as a driving influence on internet governance. He has attended the past three meetings of the Internet Governance Forum—an organisation that I will come to later in my remarks—where his contributions have been valued greatly, so demonstrating that the UK is a leading contributor to the development and evolution of the internet. Nevertheless, it is worth explaining why I have chosen this subject for debate and why it is so important to us all.
The internet is a tool that crosses all spheres of life. It is hard to believe that it is only 30 years old, and even younger to the mass population. At the outset, it was a network used by academics to connect research and academic institutions; now it is central to all personal and commercial activities in our lives. It allows better communication, permits transactions and can help to generate wealth and support freedom. It has been central to the overturning of Governments in the interests of democracy around the world, but has, sadly, facilitated the spread of terrorism at the same time. We must always be aware that it can be used for malevolent purposes.
The governance of such an instrument is obviously relevant to us all and any changes to that are a matter for us all to comment on. Child protection online has dominated the political agenda of late in the United Kingdom and is an obvious example of why internet governance is important and relevant to individuals, families and organisations. It is not a techie thing: its implications are far reaching. Trust and identity, security and cyber-security are just a few issues that show why Governments and individuals need to be equally interested in internet governance.
The internet’s roots in academia mean that its governance structure has simply evolved, and that evolution has generally taken place in the absence of Government interference, probably because it took Governments some time to understand the internet’s potential. If Governments had been more involved, the internet would have taken much longer to develop and would be less free, less innovative and less revolutionary—in every sense of the word. The freedom of the internet has led to its innovation. If Governments had been in control, we would not be where we are today and the world would, without question, be a different place.
In effect, the internet has developed according to what has been labelled a multi-stakeholder agenda: the private sector, civil society, academic groups, technical communities and the voluntary sector have all played their part, as well as Governments, with all stakeholders contributing on an equal footing. That situation gave rise to the Internet Governance Forum—an annual conference that stemmed from the United Nations world summit on the information society in 2005. Its purpose is to bring together a wide range of individuals and organisations to discuss internet governance issues. It recognises the need for partnership, consensus building and innovation to respond to improvements in technology, together with the new opportunities and challenges that those changes and improvements bring.
The Internet Governance Forum, or IGF, offers a neutral space. Although it does not result in a negotiated outcome, the organisations that it gathers together develop thinking that is implemented by the international multi-stakeholder community. The IGF provides an excellent framework for understanding internet issues, where difficult balances often need to be maintained. The UK has been at the forefront of parliamentary engagement with the issue, and MPs from around the world have played an active role in shaping discussions over the years. I would encourage continued participation.
I have had the privilege of attending two meetings of the Internet Governance Forum and draw Members’ attention to the relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Nominet, the internet registry company that manages the .uk domain space, has sponsored MPs from all parties to attend over the past seven years, recognising the forum’s importance.
I pay tribute to Nominet’s role in the organisation itself. It plays a full part in developing thinking about internet governance and ensures that the UK’s interests are heard at the centre of the decision-making process. It is also worth noting that the United Kingdom Internet Governance Forum, or UK-IGF—the organisation that develops thinking on internet governance here in the UK—would not happen without Nominet’s support, so Nominet plays a much bigger part than simply managing the .uk domain registry.
The UK-IGF also takes a neutral position, allowing and encouraging all attendees to contribute freely and to develop independent thinking. I had the privilege of chairing this year’s meeting of the UK-IGF, which, among others issues, highlighted child protection, youth engagement and identity and trust. That event was central to the contributions made by UK representatives at the IGF. Attending the past two IGF meetings has given me an opportunity better to understand international influences and cultures and how they form part of the internet governance process.
For me, this year’s IGF was markedly different to the meeting a year earlier. Among the range of subjects under discussion, which included trust and identity, cyber-security, human rights and protection of children online, the structure and governance of the internet itself was dominant. That is why I wanted to secure today’s debate, to ensure that the issues that were considered there are on the record here in Parliament.
When I say, “The structure and governance of the internet,” I am referring to the calls by some Governments and some nations to have a greater say in how the internet is governed—perhaps, according to their agenda, I should say managed. Before I explain the risks that entails, it is worth commenting on the governance structure of the internet as it stands. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, co-ordinates the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA. IANA is the department of ICANN responsible for co-ordinating some of the key elements that keep the internet running smoothly. It allocates and maintains unique codes and numbering systems that are used in the technical standards that drive the internet and enable it to work. Although the internet is renowned for being a worldwide network that is free from central co-ordination, there is a technical need for some key parts of the internet to be globally co-ordinated; that co-ordination role is undertaken by IANA. ICANN performs the IANA functions under a US Government contract—a fact that is particularly relevant.
It is that relationship with the US Government that some organisations and nations are concerned about and are seeking to change. The fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations was a genuine concern to some at the IGF, but it is being used by others as an opportunity to gain stronger control of the internet. Some Governments are calling for changes to the way in which the internet is governed, potentially risking the freedoms that it has brought about, and using information shared by Edward Snowden as the reason—or should I say as the excuse?—to do so.
I believe that the internet must remain open with oversight that derives from the joint action of international organisations, industry and civil society, but I am concerned that other nations are calling for control that could limit the internet’s contents and, as a result, its potential for innovation, ingenuity and investment. Next April, the Brazilian Government are hosting a summit to consider the issue. It is not yet clear what the exact purpose of that summit is, but it is clear that some nations see it a key step to increasing their power and influence, and that of Governments in general, over the internet.
If those Governments are successful, that will raise serious issues for us all. The great freedoms that have come from the internet as we know it may well be under threat. To give credit to the Minister and to the Foreign Office, the UK Government have already played a leading role in promoting internet freedoms. I refer to the positive response that I received from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend Hugh Robertson to a written parliamentary question:
“At the heart of the Government’s vision for the future of cyberspace is an open, borderless internet that benefits from collective oversight between Governments, international organisations, industry and civil society.”—[Hansard, 11 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 447W.]
That is exactly what I want to support and underline. It is critical that no single body controls all the functions that govern the internet. That was set out by the UK Government in 2011, when the Foreign Secretary launched what has become known as the London process of international conferences on cyberspace.
It was good to see that the Government underscored their position again in South Korea earlier this year. The Government, working with other stakeholders including Nominet, Internet Society England, BT and Global Partners Digital, have an excellent track record in shaping the discussions, and I am sure that they will continue to take a leading role in preparation for the conference in Brazil and in discussions in the United Nations, where some Governments seek to establish intergovernmental control. The multi-stakeholder approach, as opposed to the multilateral approach that is urged on us by some people, must be preserved.
The Snowden case has led some nations to question the US Government’s relationship with the internet, but let us remember that they have an enviable reputation in defending human rights and freedom of expression that many who seek to influence the internet governance debate do not. We must recognise that the environment has changed, however, and bear that in mind in preparing for the forthcoming discussions at the International Telecommunications Union in Brazil and in the UN General Assembly.
We must continue to support ICANN, and we must maintain the integrity of the system, including the all-important IANA function. Without careful and accountable management of those critical operations, we put at risk the integrity of the internet and its ability to evolve and expand. ICANN must develop internationally, and it can only do so if we assure the accountability of the organisation. An important part of that is to ensure active, multi-stakeholder engagement in shaping the future development of the organisation. The IGF, which is central to that, must also evolve. It is the only UN-mandated forum that brings together the experts who shape and develop the internet with the policy makers, Governments, legislators and regulators.
I am pleased that the Government are taking this role seriously. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are all taking the matter very seriously, because although some people may consider it to be a technical subject, it is relevant to us all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Dr McCrea. I thank my hon. Friend Alun Cairns for calling this important debate. He said that it was a vital issue, but apparently it is not one on which our colleagues feel well briefed. As I gazed round the room and realised that we were alone, until my hon. Friend Glyn Davies—the one colleague who is interested in the subject—joined us, I thought that that spoke volumes about parliamentary participation. As we constantly tell our constituents, however, our physical absence does not necessarily indicate that we are not interested in an issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan has brought this matter to the attention of the House with his absolutely superb speech. I am sure that what I am about to say will come out the wrong way, but I could not have given a better speech myself. He articulated all the key issues that surround the slightly esoteric question of internet governance, and he illustrated why it is a vital issue for politicians in this country and across the globe who value a free and open internet and who recognise the astonishing benefits that the internet has brought.
I always begin such speeches by discussing the remarkable benefits that the internet has brought, and it is a cliché and a truism to say that over the past 20 years, it has begun to completely transform the way in which we do business and communicate. It has brought the globe closer together. It will drive economic growth, not only in this country—one of the most tech-savvy and internet-engaged nations in the world; the British consumer adapts well to new technology and e-commerce is a significant part of our retail landscape—but, perhaps more importantly, in the developed world. We all know how Africa has been able to leapfrog the fixed infrastructure found in developed countries on to a mobile infrastructure, which has enabled rural businesses in Africa in particular to trade and fundamentally remodel the way in which they do business. Such rapid innovation makes a massive difference to the developing world. Our message about a free and open internet, which is often misinterpreted as being a self-interested message on behalf of the west, is actually a message to the world about how the current model for internet governance secures the innovation that is transforming lives across the world.
As a result of that model, the internet is open, global and borderless; its technical standards are open and developed by consensus; and it is open to new devices, applications and services. There is no centralised or overarching global framework of top- down intergovernmental control or oversight. The key stakeholders that have made the internet such a success continue to have a voice: businesses, civil society, the technical community and the academic institutions where the internet was born. Governments can work with those stakeholders to share knowledge, experience, skills and best practice. Governments alone would not have the expertise that other stakeholders can provide.
My hon. Friend referred to the United Nations world summit on the information society that was held in 2005, which affirmed the multi-stakeholder model as the best way forward. That model, which is based on collaboration, consensus and partnership-building, ensures that the internet continues to be dynamic, innovative and robust. He rightly highlighted the continuing challenges to the model, and the challenges faced by those of us who believe in a free and open internet. The protection of children online, for example, is a massively important issue.
That is an important issue in my constituency. I hope the Minister agrees that although we need an open and dynamic internet, the Government must be aware of the areas in which there is a real danger and do what they can—within reasonable powers and without damaging the internet—to exercise control and protect children from content that is extremely damaging.
My hon. Friend is completely correct. The rule of law applies to the internet, and that which is illegal in the physical world is illegal in the online world. That is why a zero-tolerance policy towards child abuse images does not pose a threat to internet freedom. Those images are vile and illegal, and we must do everything in our power to remove them from the internet and catch those who exchange them. That is why we have worked with internet service providers to give parents the tools they need to protect their children online, and we will continue to apply the law on pornography online as well as offline. There are other issues: consumer protection, intellectual property rights, data protection, legal and regulatory frameworks and business models have had to adapt. They are all factors in our approach to internet policies.
There are challenges and opportunities, such as the need to promote greater multilingualism on the internet, so that more people around the world can access it in their own language. As I said, we need to support the developing world in expanding its capacity and internet infrastructure. That is why I am delighted that the Department for International Development, for example, supports the Alliance for an Affordable Internet in that area. The key point, which our approach to child protection highlights, is that no one stakeholder or Government acting alone can tackle the issues. Everyone needs to work together and collaborate, which emphasises why we are supportive of the multi-stakeholder model.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan pointed out, there have been calls from some countries for a fundamental change in the international internet governance model. Some have called for Governments to have direct oversight of the internet and for a new intergovernmental organisation to create treaty-based rules. That sounds perfectly sensible at first blush—a superficially easy solution to some of the difficult challenges that we face with the internet and internet governance. Our strong view is that that top-down model would not work and would put the internet at risk for three reasons.
First, such formal institutional decision-making models would not be able to keep pace with the rapid technological change that is characteristic of the internet and the rapidly evolving needs and desires of internet users. Such a model would act as a brake on innovation and stifle the dynamism that has allowed the internet to deliver many benefits and opportunities for economic growth and social welfare. Secondly, the internet is an adaptive technology. It is not a single entity but a network of networks with no centralised control. It is questionable from a technical point of view how top-down control of the internet by Governments would work. Finally, as I said in my opening remarks, the internet is a tool that affects nearly all aspects of life. Any new intergovernmental organisation would at best duplicate the mandates of existing international organisations and at worst lead to significant confusion.
The World Trade Organisation, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, Interpol and many other international organisations have over recent years expanded their capacity to deal with internet-related issues in their areas of expertise. That seems to be a sensible way forward. We do not support the establishment of a new intergovernmental body, but that does not mean to say that we should resist all change. The international internet governance model needs to be kept fit for purpose, and as the internet develops, we must ensure that the existing processes we support can adapt to keep pace with future opportunities. Work is already under way in that respect.
My hon. Friend mentioned the IGF. I attended the past three forums. I missed the first one when I was a Minister, but I have been to every one since. The most recent took place last month. This debate is an opportunity for me to play tribute to a number of players. The previous Labour Minister with responsibility for telecoms, Alun Michael, now a police and crime commissioner, helped to establish the IGF after the world summit on the information society. I pay tribute to him as a former Minister who maintained his interest and expertise in the area. He kept the issue alive in Parliament as well as supporting the creation of the UK-IGF. I echo the praise that my hon. Friend lavished on Nominet, the charity responsible for UK domain names, ably led by Lesley Cowley. It does a fantastic job in showing that the multi-stakeholder model is effective and that a private not-for-profit organisation can play a key role and respond to pressures and challenges sensibly. I pay tribute to the charity and its leadership.
May I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend? Since the departure of Alun Michael, he has stepped up, as it were, to become Mr Internet Governance in Parliament. He does a superb job chairing the UK-IGF parliamentary meeting and takes a keen interest in all the issues. As his remarks show, he displays a deep understanding, which is incredibly valuable to my work and the work of other Ministers.
The IGF plays a valuable role in bringing together a broad range of stakeholders to discuss issues of common concern and, having attended the past three forums, I know that it is effective. It has taken steps, which we support, to improve its effectiveness. The UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development has established a working group to look at how enhanced co-operation with Governments works and whether changes or adaptations are needed. We look forward to seeing the results of that work next year. My hon. Friend also mentioned ICANN, which has taken steps to internationalise its presence, under the new and able leadership of Fadi Chehadé, and open up the domain name system. We encourage it to continue that process. In 2015, the United Nations will conduct a 10-year review of the actions that came out of the world summit on the information society. We hope that that work will feed into the development of the millennium development goals. We continue to support such international processes.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the Brazilian summit. The Brazilian Government are proposing further international discussions on internet governance in April or May next year. Brazil has played a positive and valuable role in internet governance for many years. The Brazilian internet steering committee has published a set of principles for the governance and use of the internet. Those principles have been a helpful contribution to the debate, which many countries, including the UK, broadly support. We look forward to hearing more details about any event in Brazil next year and we stand ready to engage in that important process.
As I have said, perhaps repeatedly, we are sceptical about greater control of the internet by Governments or by an intergovernmental organisation. We are committed to engaging in discussions about how we can ensure that the current model remains fit for purpose. The tests we should apply to any proposed change to the internet governance model must ultimately be practical. Does it allow us to maintain the internet as an open, robust and technically secure service? Does it help us to find sustainable and consensus-based solutions to the challenges that we face? Does it allow the internet to continue to develop and innovate and offer social and economic benefits to more people around the world? The internet has been a huge success and continues to transform all aspects of our lives. We must work to maintain and strengthen the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance that has sustained that success and ensure that it is fit for purpose in the future.