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COVID-19: Changing the Internet Governance Landscape

Chris Buckridge — 11 Jun 2020
I recently had the opportunity to speak in a webinar organised by the ISOC UK England Chapter on “COVID-19 and The Future of Internet Governance”. The session looked at the diverse impacts of COVID-19 on Internet governance-related issues. In this article, I want to discuss two of these impacts from a RIPE NCC perspective.

While it can seem like navel-gazing to focus on Internet governance during such a serious crisis, there are lessons to be learned from how our societies responded, and from how they used the Internet within those responses. These lessons may help us in the future crises, but they might also affect how we work and interact even under “normal” circumstances. Optimistically, these longer-term lessons have the potential to help us develop more inclusive, representative ways of meeting the challenges of Internet governance.

But as we learn those lessons, we also need to be aware that COVID-19 has changed the Internet governance landscape, potentially in ways that will last long after the virus has ceased to pose an imminent threat. 

Effect #1: Changing What We Face

It’s a cliché at this point to describe the measures implemented to contain COVID-19 as “the biggest experiment ever conducted”, or even to note how essential the Internet has been to facilitating these measures. Suffice it to say that the Internet’s importance to contemporary society has never been more universally recognised and understood.

From a technical perspective, current indications suggest that the Internet operator and technical communities have come through this period with flying colours. Initial research (documented on RIPE Labs and elsewhere) indicates that while Internet traffic levels increased and usage patterns have changed, networks adapted quickly (and for most users, invisibly), helping a significant portion of the workforce to transition rapidly to remote working. Many operators – working alone or with national regulators – have deployed innovative strategies to help users get connected and stay connected (this spreadsheet lists more than 250 examples from around the world).

The story of Internet governance, though, has been one of the Internet growing ever more ubiquitous and essential, and in doing so, raising questions about how such a public utility should be regulated. The events of recent months have served to highlight the essential nature of the Internet; expect to see new urgency behind discussions of what that means for regulation, as governments scramble for answers to two questions: how do we get our population online? And once they’re online, how do we keep them safe?

The first question was obviously top of the agenda when the lockdowns started around the world, and we saw several examples of governments taking steps to try and ensure their citizens’ connectivity – striking deals with video streaming services to save on bandwidth, and in some cases ensuring that operators don't disconnect customers who couldn’t pay their bills.

But with many people coming online under new, often stressful circumstances, many governments are now looking to the second question: how do we keep people safe online? Which leads back to some of the Internet governance’s most complex and intractable challenges and debates.

The good news is that, in many cases, governments during this period have been pro-active in engaging the technical and operator communities to develop solutions. And one of the positive aspects of policymaking in a crisis is that it can cut through political posturing or prejudice, as all sides look to find practical solutions urgently. The danger is that such urgency can lead to policy that is hastily conceived and implemented, under-researched, and difficult to roll back. Maintaining (and further developing) the connections established or solidified between governments and the technical community during this COVID-19 period will help mitigate that danger. Ensuring that we have the venues and processes to foster those relationships is key, which brings us to the next area of impact…

Effect #2: Changing How We Face It

As well as facilitating the shift to remote work, the Internet industry has of course also found itself affected by the new requirements for social distancing. This has had some immediate practical implications. For instance, early in the lockdown it became clear that network and data centre staffing would pose challenges, with some operator workers unable to physically access their equipment; there’s already been some reporting on the challenges that lockdown posed for the DNSSEC Key Signing Ceremony, which generally relies on having people together in the same room.

But perhaps the biggest impact on how communities like RIPE operate has been the need to replace all face-to-face meetings with remote events, whether larger events like RIPE, ICANN or IETF meetings, or smaller national network operator groups (even the RIPE NCC’s own Member Lunches). Speaking from the RIPE (and certainly from the RIPE NCC) perspective, RIPE 80 was a great success – the first ever all-remote RIPE Meeting, with 2,000+ attendees registered and an average of 1,300 viewers per day (compared to an average of around 800 registered at recent RIPE Meetings). We also received a lot of positive feedback on the quality of both the content and the technology (the meeting was conducted using Zoom, in webinar mode, with alternative streaming services and live transcript).

That such an event allows for many more people to participate is self-evident; that the need to embrace and innovate with online events (driven by COVID-19-related restrictions) has led to vastly improved remote conference experiences for many users over recent months also seems clear.

The fact remains, though, that a remote event cannot recreate or recapture all the value of a physical meeting. In recent community discussions on the RIPE mailing list, while many have been positive about a virtual meeting format (either in general or as a necessary response to unusual circumstances), others noted the challenge of communicating with fellow participants in a purely online format, particularly around contentious topics. For new participants, there is little opportunity for meeting new people and forming new contacts without a social space. And for participants who use RIPE Meetings (at least partly) to do business and hold side-meetings, the all-remote option offers much less opportunity for this.

All of which poses a challenge as we move into an unknown “new normal”, an environment in which travel may be restricted or more expensive; in which companies, having seen their employees participate remotely, may feel less inclined to fund travel; and in which remote participation may need to be prioritised far more than was previously the case.

These are questions that have practical implications in terms of meeting organisation, event costs and technological solutions. But there are also sociological questions, about how we interact as a community. And fundamentally, they are policymaking questions. RIPE (and the other RIR communities) have an authoritative role in setting policy relating to Internet number resource management – if a “new normal” simply doesn't allow for the RIPE Meetings of the past, what implications (if any) does that have for how policy is made?

As a policy-making community, RIPE has in its DNA a predisposition towards inclusivity and remote participation: RIPE policymaking takes place on the mailing lists, after all. But at the same time, RIPE’s strength has always come from the community aspect – relationships forged at meetings throughout the service region, solutions cooked up over a coffee break, and insights gleaned from informal discussions after an intense working group session.

As the members of the RIPE community (and other policy-making or standard-setting community formations across the Internet governance ecosystem) start to grapple with the possible reality of governance without physical meetings, one point is sharply in focus: COVID-19 has exposed how heavily modern society relies on the Internet, and that reliance will make the governance of the Internet more significant and more contested than ever. Those entrusted with some share of that governance, as the RIPE community is, will need to adapt quickly to the “new normal”.

1 Comment

Michael Oghia says:
11 Jun, 2020 04:48 PM
Well said Chris, in every way. It's unchartered territory of sorts, but we're all in this together and relying on the community is key.
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