Participation and Policy Positions in Global Internet Governance

Research question/goal: 

This study investigated the evolution of participation by private and public actors in global internet governance. We focused on standards development organizations (SDOs) such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), in which companies, academics, civil society actors, and government agencies negotiate and agree on fundamental technical standards for the internet. The roots of internet standards development can be found in US-based academic and governmental networks of the 1960s. Yet, how has participation in SDOs such as the IETF evolved since then? To what extent and how, has it been affected by the commercialization of the internet and its development into a global communication infrastructure? Do political changes such as the rise of China influence standards development? Is there any evidence to substantiate concerns raised in recent political debates that the internet could fragment into multiple, technically disconnected networks?

To answer these questions, the project assembled original, fine-grained data on five decades of participation (1968-–2018) in the IETF. These data reveal which actors participate in the IETF’s regular meetings, (co-)authored new internet standards and other important publications that constitute the IETF’s key outputs, and assume organizational leadership roles. Employing a variety of analytical techniques including network analysis and generalized synthetic controls, we examined the changing contours and drivers of IETF participation.

Key results include that participation in internet standards development has intensified and expanded steadily. It has also changed strongly from being sustained by academic and governmental actors before 1990 to being predominantly run by private companies following the commercialization of the internet in the 1990s and after. We found evidence not only of an expansion and privatisation of participation but also of a quickly increasing concentration of decision-making processes and leadership positions around a small number of mostly, but not exclusively, US-based companies. We did not observe evidence of fragmentation such as declining willingness of actors to co-author standards or the dependence of co-authorship on political characteristics of the countries of origin of IETF participants. We further identified a rapid increase of participation by private Chinese actors, which, according to our analyses, is not simply a reflection of economic development but of a shift in the Chinese government’s foreign and technology policy. However, the influx of Chinese actors has so far not resulted in visible problems in standards development—rather, we find considerable and growing collaboration between private actors from China, Europe, and the USA.

Fact sheet

2017 to 2021
Data Sources: 
Documents (debate transcripts, meeting attendance records etc.)
Geographic Space: