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Maintaining Trust In The Digital World

Roel Uleners

As the Internet embeds itself into every aspect of the world’s economy and every individual’s life, our greatest challenge in the coming years will be determining how we maintain the world’s trust of the digital space.

Trust was in abundance in the formative years of the Internet. In the early 1980s, the decentralized network consisted of a rapidly increasing number of host computers, connecting researchers, scientists, the military and some government officials, who used it to swap files and data. The history of top-level domains for countries (examples are .ZA for South Africa, or .CA for Canada) illustrates just how trust-based – and trusting – this network was. Volunteers ran these top-level country code domains. How were they selected? Jon Postel, the administrator and operator of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), typically assigned them to those he deemed “responsible persons.” This informal system worked fine when the main use of the Internet was messaging or sharing academic research.

Today, the Internet’s early culture and its reliance on trust and relationships between technical experts is an important element, but one that has also needed to evolve. Not only has the number of Internet users greatly expanded, but the network itself has also increased exponentially in its ubiquity and its significance. Today, the Internet is embedded into every aspect of the economy and life, and with its extended reach, we have also made it possible for those who seek to do harm to have a greater impact.

Certainly, the risk for disruption and damage is greater now than it was 20 years ago, as the Internet’s purpose, impact and value has far exceeded that envisioned by its early founders. With cyber security breaches on the rise and the ongoing debate about privacy online, individuals, corporations and governments around the globe are questioning trustworthiness of digital world. And rightly so.

What we must do is begin to evolve these trust structures created decades earlier, when a handshake or an exchange of emails was enough to build trust, and the risk of misplaced trust was infinitesimal to what it is today. To mitigate this risk, we must begin putting rules around how we govern the Internet’s societal and economic layers, beginning with a framework that allows us to extend the trust model from how the Internet was built to how it is being used. 

In order to build this framework, we need evolve and explore new platforms capable of bringing all stakeholders together. We need to continue to create space for governments, corporations, technical organizations, and others to work on these issues collectively and collaboratively. We need to find places where the voices of all Internet users are heard, and where emerging issues can continuously be identified and worked on. In this way, we will evolve digital governance to be responsive to new technologies, new uses, new users and new challenges, just as the Internet was responsive to the needs of its founders in those early days. 

This next generation of digital governance will require each of us to work together to create the potential for maintaining the world’s trust of the digital space. All of us – from individuals to global corporations and governments – depend on the Internet’s operation, and by acknowledging this, we also acknowledge that our requirements for trust require much more than informal agreements or personal relationships. I hope you’ll join me in this journey to the next iteration of digital governance, one that channels the creativity and innovation of the past to ensure the world’s continued collaboration on this critical, yet decentralized, resource.