Principles for Internet governance - are they a useful tool, or just one more collection to add to the list? And is there a need to document RIPE's own principles?
Recently, the RIPE NCC shared a submission that we had made to a European Commission public consultation on a ‘Declaration of Digital Principles – the ‘European way’ for the digital society’. The initiative, which is part of the broader 2030 Digital Compass project, was sketched out in a roadmap document prepared by the Commission that included some examples of the kind of principles that they had in mind:
- Universal access to internet services
- A secure and trusted online environment
- Universal digital education and skills for people to take an active part in society and in democratic processes
- Access to digital systems, devices and services that respect the climate and environment
- Accessible and human-centric digital public services and administration
- Ethical principles for human centric algorithms
- Protecting and empowering children and young people in the online space
- Access to digital health services
Source: Roadmap: Declaration of Digital Principles (2021)
The RIPE NCC’s response suggested that what was missing from these examples was a high-level commitment to “a globally interoperable, unfragmented Internet”, a principle that EU institutions have commonly referred to (and that was included, at a suggestion from the RIPE NCC, in a recent European Parliament resolution on the state of EU cyber defence capabilities (paragraph 12)). The RIPE NCC sees this as closely aligned with the goals of the RIPE community (and the Internet technical community more broadly), and we noted that the inclusion of such a principle:
“...would encourage caution where there is the potential for public policies to adversely affect the ability of individuals and businesses to make full use of the Internet, as such an outcome would not only conflict with the EU’s commitment to global human rights, but could serve to encourage other policymakers around the world to develop similarly far-reaching and disruptive measures.”
We await the outcome and next steps in the Commission’s process with interest. In the meantime, however, this effort got us thinking a little more deeply about principles in general, and the principles that guide the work of RIPE and the RIPE NCC.
Plenty of Principles
The European Commission is hardly the first party to develop a set of Internet-related principles - in fact, collections of principles have been a defining feature of Internet governance discussions since the early 2000s. Some of the more high-profile efforts in this space have come from institutions such as the Council of Europe, the OECD, and the NetMundial multistakeholder event in 2014; there have even been IGF discussions on the proliferation of collections of Internet governance principles. More recently, some groups have developed principles focused on specific areas of governance, such as the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation, or the five “critical properties” identified by the Internet Society as part of the ‘Internet Way of Networking’.
The appeal of establishing a common ground of agreement is easy to understand, though the true value would seem to be in the practical outcomes that derive from those shared principles - as stakeholders return home to implement Internet governance solutions “in their respective roles” (to quote the Tunis Agenda), are those solutions consistent with the principles agreed? Success in that sense is hard to quantify, but is, at best, an open question for many of these initiatives.
Brainstorming RIPE Principles
Given the focus that so many people have placed on developing principles, does it make sense for RIPE to consider the principles fundamental to this community and its engagement with other parts of the Internet governance ecosystem?
Some might argue that this work has already been done. Many of the most fundamental principles upon which RIPE is built are stated quite explicitly in RIPE Policies; work prepared by many of the RIPE Task Forces over the years (including the RIPE Task Force on Enhanced Cooperation, the RIPE Accountability Task Force, more recently, the Diversity Task Force) has gone further in documenting some of the more implicit principles. And if we go back to the beginning, the RIPE Terms of Reference, RIPE Document ripe-001, is itself a set of principles (though these are principles primarily about the role and processes of the RIPE community itself).
There is also much wisdom in this paragraph from the final report of the RIPE Accountability Task Force, regarding RIPE community values:
RIPE participants undoubtedly share a set of implicit values that are not related to how the community’s processes should work. For example, it might be argued that many participants believe in working towards an open Internet. Nevertheless, RIPE has intentionally avoided describing or formalising these kinds of values. This position was restated when the task force sought feedback from the RIPE community as part of this review. Aside from the fact that it would be difficult for the community to reach an agreement on which higher-level values it shared, having such values in place could come to limit the community in the future, and might cause some people to feel that they were not welcome to participate.
At the same time, however, the Internet governance landscape is growing increasingly active and complex, and the RIPE NCC is regularly engaging (often in coordination with other I* and industry colleagues) with governments, regulators, international organisations and other stakeholders on governance issues beyond those with immediate impact on our operations. Our interventions in such discussions often call upon the legitimacy and authority of the RIPE community, and a clear, succinct statement from the community of the values that it expects the RIPE NCC to advocate for and other stakeholders to pay heed to, may help strengthen that advocacy.
With that in mind, I’ve given some thought to what principles the community would even consider as appropriate candidates for inclusion.
Below, I’ve made an initial attempt to define eight values, based very explicitly on the content of existing, current RIPE Documents and other formal reports or statements. If nothing else, this draft set of principles will give an indication of the principles that underpin much of the RIPE NCC’s current advocacy and engagement.
Some Possible “RIPE Principles”
RIPE Community Principles
Participation in RIPE is open to anyone with an interest in IP addressing
Reference: RIPE Accountability Task Force Final Report (Who is RIPE Accountable to?)
RIPE is accountable only to itself, as an open, inclusive community of people interested in the technical coordination of Internet networks
Reference: RIPE Accountability Task Force Final Report (Who is RIPE Accountable to?)
Policies for distribution and registration of Internet number resources should be developed via an open, bottom-up, transparent, inclusive community process, with conclusions reached by consensus
Registration of Internet number resources is vital to the stable operation of the Internet globally
Growth and innovation on the Internet depends on the continued availability of IP address space; therefore, the widespread deployment of IPv6 should be made a high priority by all stakeholders
Reference: RIPE Community Position Statement on IPv6
Internet number resources should be provided in a fair, impartial manner to End Users operating networks
Internet number resources (including the registration of those Internet number resources with an RIR) are not regarded as property
The means of communication, including the provision of correctly registered Internet numbering resources, should not be affected by political discussions or disputes
Any formulation of principles immediately opens a range of questions about what is included, but also what’s not included. Looking back at the ideas above, two questions immediately jump out.
First, as noted early in this article, the RIPE NCC recently suggested that an EU Declaration of Digital Principles should include a commitment to “a globally interoperable, unfragmented Internet”. And yet such language is not included above. Is this in-principle commitment something that the RIPE community would stand behind? How explicitly has that been stated in RIPE Documents or outputs? Do the draft principles above already capture the relevant aspects of this “global, interoperable, unfragmented Internet” principle by reference to the importance of registration, open policy development process, and keeping the means of communication separate from political disputes?
Second, I have included registration of Internet number resources as a RIPE principle. But the “primary goals” of the RIR system are often described as registration, conservation, and aggregation. Would the RIPE community currently consider conservation and aggregation as high-level principles equal to the need for accurate registration? Since the exhaustion of the IPv4 address pool, “conservation” is no longer described as a priority in IPv4 RIPE policies (though it is referenced in the IPv6 policy, section 3.5); similarly, “aggregation” (or “routability”) has been less spoken of in recent years, as concerns about growth of the routing table have receded. However, the RIPE community has never come to any formal position on these matters.
Continuing the Discussion
This is not intended to be a concrete proposal, but rather a conversation starter. I'd love to hear perspectives from the community: does it make sense to further document “RIPE principles”? Do the principles above accurately reflect today’s RIPE community? Is there anything important missing? Hopefully this discussion can continue in the RIPE Cooperation Working Group session at RIPE 83 and on the RIPE Cooperation Working Group mailing list.