Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2019 about the need to update the rules of the internet. He wrote: “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it … for entrepreneurs to build new things—while also protecting society from broader harms.” But should governments and regulators play a more active role?
The rules of the internet, or what I refer to as internet policy, is something neglected by most. Enterprises have spent millions of dollars to understand and influence policies, such as environmental, tax, and intellectual property policies, but while they have become ever more dependent on the internet—especially in the last six months—no one seems to pay attention to internet policy. At least not throughout our many conversations with large enterprises regarding their internet presence; this topic rarely came up.
The question is then whether enterprises should pay attention to policies affecting the internet. In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) resulted in the redaction of the internet WHOIS record, which was the primary tool for businesses to investigate online brand infringement. In Japan, the government has proposed a new privacy law which will include cookies as part of personal data. In China, its internet policy is more comprehensive and pervasive, in which all internet services operated in the country must comply with the local law. In the U.S., the latest internet policy released is The Clean Network Policy and around the same time, executive orders were signed to ban TikTok and WeChat.
The impact of the TikTok and WeChat ban will not only affect these two companies; if an enterprise is doing business in China, it’s inevitable that WeChat is used in some form as a communication tool. With TikTok, it has gained popularity amongst the younger generations, and thousands of businesses around the world advertise on it. A ban on these platforms effectively cuts off a critical communication channel used by companies to drive revenue.
We will not debate whether these are good or bad policies. The key point is that internet policies will affect businesses, and if the development of policies are left entirely to the respective governments, then the internet will inevitably fragment. Afterall, governments only have the mandate to make laws and regulations in their territory; the internet is global.
There are dedicated internet policies that focus solely on regulating the online world, such as Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the U.S., and the EU Digital Single Market initiative. However, there are various intellectual property and security policies that indirectly affect the online space, and they should be included in the review of internet policies. For example, GDPR is a data protection policy but it has basically shutdown the most important online investigation tool, the WHOIS database, and affected all businesses that encounter an online brand infringement.
There is no doubt that internet policy is important, especially in the current political climate. The real question is: how can companies better understand and work with these policies? Enterprises traditionally steered away from this topic because it is outside their expertise. A lot of the internet policies relevant to enterprises are being discussed at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). An example is the current revision of the “Rights Protection Mechanism,” which sets out intellectual property (IP) protection programs applied globally and is adapted by many local jurisdictions. However, ICANN has a tendency of crowding out non-industry attendees with its technical jargon, making it very difficult for the wider business community to join in the discussion.
For companies to understand how they are affected by internet policies, there are a few critical points they need to recognize and acknowledge:
1.It’s critical to hold true to the transnational nature of the internet. There are enough existing problems—ranging from phishing attacks and IP infringements, to the election influence campaigns, and the ban of online platforms—that some rules for the internet are necessary and inevitable.
2.Management attention at the executive-level is necessary. The internet impacts every aspect of a business. Employees who are in charge of online intellectual properties and cyber security need to be empowered to participate in policy discussions, so businesses don’t consider internet issues in a silo.
3.Participatory internet policymaking is very important. If the community doesn’t participate and contribute to how a healthy internet should work, then governments will assert their authority.
Let’s start by having business executives pay attention to internet policy issues, and acknowledge that a fragmented internet is not good for business. This will create an incentive for international institutions, such as ICANN, to host programs more relevant to the business communities and create political necessity for governments to be more consultative.
Author：Alban Kwan, regional director, East Asia, CSC