Openness for Building Equity: Lessons from the growth of the Internet

“Openness isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.” Margaret Heffernan 

The most interesting story about the history of the Internet was told by Dr. Steve Crocker at the 2020 Africa Internet Summit (AIS). He is the author of the first Request for Comments (RFCs) document titled “Host Software”, and a former Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) Board Chair. Using sketches, he took us on a journey back to September 1969, when the first “Internet” packet was sent between 2 nodes: University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). UCLA, the first node, was the very first location to host the Interface Message Processor (IMP) and send the first message to SRI (node 2). By December 1969, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), also commonly referred to as the first Internet, was able to connect 4 locations: UCLA, SRI, University of California, Santa Barbara and Utah. He went on to explain that 10 years later, a geographic map of the connections became more complicated to draw as more locations were connected.

Figure 1: IMP in 1969 (Source: UCLA)

Right now, the map is even more complicated if you add layers of products and services that run on the Internet from multiple locations, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices which are estimated in billions. It is interesting to note that something that started as 2 nodes sending messages has grown to be so big, powerful, complex and in my opinion, unpredictable.

Behind this growth is open architecture and innovation, and the ability to add and accommodate new protocols and services. At Internet policy making bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Request for Comments (RFCs) and Internet drafts can be authored by any member of the community. Mailing lists are public, open and free for anyone to contribute; and anyone is free to participate in the various working groups. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) follows a similar approach. Through the At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), a constituency that represents interests of end users at ICANN, I have come to understand how an empowered community can develop, recommend and give policy advice.

A more recent example is the transition of the stewardship role of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to the Internet multistakeholder community. Convened by ICANN, the process involved developing a plan for the transition and ensuring that the proposal had backing of the Internet community, would maintain the security, stability, and resilience of the Internet Domain Name System (DNS), and maintain the openness of the Internet. As a newcomer at the time, I was amazed at  how members of the Internet community led the process, contributed and brought others along. Several calls were held and documents were translated into multiple languages during the 2 year period, which finally saw this plan submitted and accepted by the NTIA. I remember the celebration after this process – people were happy to contribute in various ways and see their work represented. In a way, the community contributed to something that belongs to no one and also belongs to everyone.


A Multistakeholder Approach? 

In such environments, building consensus is challenging; groups consist of stakeholders from different backgrounds with diverse needs, priorities, cultures, languages, and beliefs. A true multistakeholder environment does not mean that all stakeholders have equal power. It simply means that instead of working in silos, everyone can play their part in building and supporting better technology development. Open communication becomes important in this process. During a session on interoperability at the 2020 Internet Governance Forum (IGF), Rob Nicholls (Associate Professor, University of New South Wales Business School) shared an example of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) using GitHub as part of consultation for the development of open banking standards. This public consultation sounded like an interesting way for governments to openly consult and engage with citizens.

Figure 2: What does participation mean?

It’s not all great

Even with all this growth and openness, the Internet is not perfect. We have seen a lot of issues around the Internet and technologies in general – from bias in artificial intelligence systems, to surveillance, oppression, misinformation and the spread of fake news, and so many issues generally. A lot of progress has been made in giving people access to technologies, with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) stating the most recent connectivity statistics at slightly above half of the world’s population. However, we still experience the digital inequality paradox, which means that even if more people are getting connected, we are increasing digital inequality.

Figure 3: What is a healthy Internet?

My research questions explore what relevant and meaningful participation means in designing community technology solutions. I believe we have many lessons to learn from the growth of the Internet. We need to ask what a healthy Internet means. How can we use the Internet as a tool for building equity? Sometimes the spaces we engage in might be open and maybe there are a few seats on the table but that does not mean that everyone is welcome. Sometimes we have to extend an invitation. And once people are on the table, it does not necessarily mean that they have a voice. Power structures, even in open spaces, can be a hindrance, meaning that those with more power get their voices heard. In terms of resources, on many occasions the openness movement is on a volunteer basis so you need to have access to self or external funding.


In the spirit of openness, I started a GitHub repo (still very much work in progress) to share my journey with you. I invite you to join me in documenting possibilities for IoT for communities.

Recommend reading 

This blog post is based on reflections of the Mozilla Open Leadership Training, the Open Design of Trusted Things (OpenDoTT) Internet Health training and my talk at the 3rd Carnegie Mellon University Open Science Symposium in October 2020.