Why Business Must Take The Lead In Protecting The Global Internet

Editor’s note: Chris Mondini is a former diplomat and tech industry consultant. He currently leads business engagement at ICANN.

“Products don’t really get that interesting to turn into businesses until they have about a billion people using them,” said Mark Zuckerberg in a call with analysts in late October. Imagine trying to get to a billion users without the global Internet. Underlying Mark Zuckerberg’s comment is the simple assumption that the globally united and rapidly expanding Internet – of 3 billion users and counting — is here to stay.

It’s a premise shared by many online business leaders, as well as the investment community. Just take a look at recent valuations of Internet-dependent companies. WhatsApp sold for $19 billion. Alibaba’s recent public offering raised $25 billion.

These numbers, like the growth plans of many Silicon Valley darlings, are predicated on an assumption that the Internet will remain a unified, global platform reaching more and more markets. That outcome is far from certain.

Two very specific threats might well derail the global Internet. One is geopolitics. The other is network vulnerability. It’s time for business to get serious about addressing them both. Business leaders who would never dream of leaving it to others to maintain the key infrastructure of their enterprise are letting others define the Internet of tomorrow.

On the geopolitical front, a polarizing debate has been brewing over how much governments should be involved in coordinating the Internet. As Google’s Eric Schmidt pointed out, fierce and rising geopolitical conflict over the global network threatens to create a fragmented system some call “the splinternet.”

A recent International Telecommunications Union confab in Busan, South Korea, showed increasing governmental interest in a growing number of Internet matters, though any direct grab by this UN body for control was held at bay. Governments have a legitimate concern for the well-being of citizens and national security, but divergence on how these concerns are defined and scarce knowledge of how the Internet actually works can result in ill-conceived proposals.

At the same time, a kind of arms race is underway when it comes to network security, with all sectors — hardware, software, operators and applications — investing staggering sums to meet a growing volume of attacks. Not everybody knows it, but what really makes the Internet so resilient is that it is actually a voluntary network of networks. Try imagining what it is like to be responsible for protecting one of them. One executive in charge of a very large network recently confided that he has doubled his security team in the last year alone, just to fend off cyber attacks.

So why is it that only a tiny fraction of Internet companies works actively to preserve the global platform for innovation on which they all depend? (Facebook is a company that invests heavily in the effort; so the answer to the question about Zuckerberg is: “He takes it very seriously”.)

It is a sad and shocking fact that most tech companies are simply free-riders. They benefit from the hard work and investment of a few star players like Facebook. It’s time for more of them to step up to the plate.

So What’s a Tech Company to Do?

Plenty has been written about the above-mentioned threats to business, but there’s precious little advice on concrete steps to address them. Here are some easy steps to take, whether you’re a startup or a global tech powerhouse.

For small firms and emerging disruptors with visions of global domination, here are some suggestions:

Sign up to show your public support for the NETmundial principles. NETmundial, a meeting convened in Sao Paulo in April 2014, invited governments, businesses, technologists and advocacy groups to co-create a set of principles for governing the Internet. The No. 1 principle they agreed to was simply that dialogue among diverse stakeholders is the best way to address contentious Internet issues. All but two of the 66 governments in attendance signed up for these principles. It’s an invitation for the private sector to maintain a leading role in finding solutions. Don’t let it go unanswered.

Get informed. Join the Internet Society (for free), get involved in the Mozilla Foundation, or sign up for a newsfeed from an organization like Engine Advocacy to follow these issues and show support for the Internet. The great thing about the global Internet (while we still have it) is that it facilitates cross-border, horizontal organization that can serve as a counterbalance to the hierarchical instincts of regulators and policy makers who are still learning how the Internet works.

Become a part of the global cybersecurity dialogue. In a very real sense, the old cliché holds true here – if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Awareness and collaboration are the two best weapons for companies navigating this space. If you have time to follow only one expert, try the Security Skeptic. If you want to lend your name to an admirable effort, join over 100 companies that have already signed the Commitment to Cyber Resilience, developed by the World Economic Forum as part of its Partnering for Cyber Resilience.

For larger companies with resources to allocate and who may have been MIA till now, here are ways to show your commitment to a single, global Internet and make up for your earlier, “free-rider” status:

  • Participate in the volunteer-based technical organizations that develop policies and standards for global interoperability. ICANN is always looking for business representation in its working groups, supporting organizations and advisory committees.
  • Hire policy professionals who know technology and can advocate on issues affecting the Internet, or at least join a business association that already does so. The Internet Association, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, and the BASIS program of the International Chamber of Commerce are good examples. And while you’re at it, be sure that your Chief Security Officer is engaged with the Forum for Incident Response Security Teams (FIRST).
  • Send a representative to the Internet Governance Forum, an annual gathering where diverse stakeholders learn from each other and share best practice (and where government reps seek advice from others – including on cybersecurity). Check out the NETmundial Initiative, a new platform that encourages development of best practice on a range of thorny Internet issues, channeling ideas, information and investment to promising solutions.

Brains, Money and Talent

Tech businesses have the most to lose in geopolitical tussles over who runs the Internet and from incessant cyber attacks that recognize no borders. But they also, arguably, have the most to contribute in finding solutions – brains, money and creative thinking. It’s a long way from the incubators or corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley to the halls of the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, or government ministries around the world. But it’s now time to make the journey – the Internet’s future and the future of your business require it.