Global governance is a collaborative process involving the capacities of transnational actors to solve a myriad of global challenges. This is especially relevant in the context of the Internet where governance arrangements involve a multiplicity of actors, including the private sector, multi-stakeholder initiatives, governments, non-governmental organizations, global public bodies, and individual internet users, among others. But as governance becomes more collaborative and power is shared among state and non-state actors, questions of accountability arise.
In the absence of an overarching political authority, no one set of actors can solve the myriad of global challenges or adequately manage the complex process of social, economic, cultural, and political integration. We need a combination of efforts and more accountability.
Take Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), for example. The company has a unique role in how information is accessed globally through the Internet, but who is it accountable to? Shareholders, obviously; but what about the individual Internet user whose search history the company stores? What about the Chinese citizen who is unable to access certain information because of the company’s collaboration with the Chinese government? Should Google also be accountable to them? While providing a service that has greatly enhanced citizens' access to information, the extent of Google’s reach into people’s daily lives raises serious issues of public accountability.
But it's not just Google that faces the challenge of accountability; all the actors involved in the process of Internet governance need to be accountable to the people they affect. The Internet has been very effective at dispersing power and providing the well connected individual with unique opportunities to exert influence. The anonymity that the Internet affords can also lead to the abuse of such power.
If the Internet is to help create a new civil space where citizens from across the globe can come together to discuss and debate issues, there needs to be greater accountability among individual users for their actions. The recent proposals for an online code of conduct are interesting in this regard.
Likewise, organizations such as ICANN that have core functions in the global structures of Internet governance are also faced with the accountability challenge. In order to remain legitimate, ICANN needs to have in place structures that enable it to balance the needs and interests of its different stakeholder groups.
All actors involved in the process of Internet governance, irrespective of their sector, need to be accountable and responsive to the people and communities they affect; unless they are, the solutions and strategies developed for the governance of the Internet will lack legitimacy and ultimately fail.
— Robert Lloyd, Global Accountability Project Manager for One World Trust