4.1.2. Anarchistic Internet governance

It is appealing on an intuitive level to consider that the same anarchistic principles could be applied in structuring a governance network to deal with Internet-related public policy issues. The fact that anarchistic ordering is consistent with the Internet’s core architectural principles on a technical level, and also philosophically consonant with many of them on a cultural level (decentralisation, openness, egalitarianism, anonymity and cosmopolitanism in particular), a network forged on anarchistic principles is likely to be more successful than one modelled on, say, the hierarchical authority of traditional intergovernmental organisations, by reason of being more culturally appropriate.

How would this work in practice? In essence, it would simply mean involving all stakeholders in Internet governance, but disallowing any of them to coerce the others (even by democratic or meritocratic claims). The applicable structures of governance in an anarchistic order could thus not be posited in advance, but would be those that emerge from spontaneous networks between stakeholders that form and reform as required. Reagle, an anarchist who has examined these characteristics in the Internet’s technical governance, writes,

With the cacophony of ideas, proposals, and debates, and a lack of a central authority to cleave the good from the bad, how does one sort it all out? It sorts itself out. We need not delegate our values to a central authority—subject to tyrannical or partisan tendencies. The success of any policy is based simply on its adoption by the community.[1]

Johnson and Post ground their preference for anarchistic ordering in Internet governance in the fact that the geography of online activities does not coincide with the sovereignty of any existing legal authority. They posit the emergence of responsible self-regulatory structures on the net, based upon common consensus, much in the same manner as the law merchant emerged from amongst those engaged in transnational commerce.[2]

This should be carefully distinguished from self-regulation, at least in the conventional sense. Such self-regulation is a form of governance in which stakeholders develop standards or codes to which they prospectively agree to bind themselves, typically as a trade-off against the threat of external coercion (such as governmental regulation). This is both inconsistent with anarchism and a misreading of Johnson and Post, for whom no structured regulation should be presupposed at all; rather, spontaneous regulation should be left to emerge through consensus. To distinguish this notion from self-regulation in the first sense given above, the phrase “decentralised collective action”[3] may be used.

The “rules” that emerge from decentralised collective action do not derive their force from hierarchical authority, which leaves markets, norms and architecture as the three possible mechanisms of internal governance for an anarchistic governance network.[4]

An example of the use of markets in anarchistic Internet governance is found in some of early experiments in gTLD administration. At around the time of the IAHC, other DNS systems such as eDNS[5] were set up on a free market model, that in the case of eDNS would have allowed an unlimited number of registrars to administer up to ten new domains each, whilst still interoperating with the legacy IANA and NSI-administered domains.[6] There was even a similar project in Australia, the AURSC, which ended up with 28 new TLDs.[7] Both, having been superseded by ICANN (whose registry contracts prohibit dealings with alternate roots),[8] are now defunct, though there do remain a number of other active alternate roots with limited use.

The result would have been either a market of competitors offering similar services, or the market’s convergence on a single winner through the force of network externalities,[9] producing a succession of serial monopolies. Either of these outcomes could have been alternatives to the ICANN model in which a single body is institutionalised in the role through the hierarchical force of its contract with the United States Department of Commerce.[10] Higgs has even applied game theory to the issue of multiple DNS roots, and concluded that it would be rational for multiple DNS roots to voluntarily cooperate,[11] as in practice many of them have.[12]

As for the use of norms within an anarchistic transnational network, the London Action Plan provides a good example. Whilst its members do agree to cooperate in the battle against spam through the use of tools such as domestic anti-spam legislation and education of users and businesses, they are not legally compelled to do so as they would be under a traditional intergovernmental agreement (not to mention that a traditional intergovernmental agreement would not include the private sector stakeholders that the LAP does). Rather, the LAP relies solely upon its members’ shared norms as its internal mechanism of governance.

As well as being culturally appropriate for the governance of networks engaged in Internet public policy development, decentralised collective action also offers a number of practical benefits over hierarchical methods for the internal governance of networks. These include the ability to be more responsive to changes in the environment, to transcend the archaic territorial focus that is implicit in the Westphalian state system, and to develop and implement policies less expensively and more quickly.[13] In short, decentralised collective action is not only more culturally acceptable on the Internet, but can also be more efficient than hierarchical alternatives.



Reagle, Joseph, Why the Internet is Good: Community Governance That Works Well (1999)


Johnson, David R & Post, David G, Law and Borders—the Rise of Law in Cyberspace (1996)


Johnson, David R & Crawford, Susan P, The Idea of ICANN (2001)


Though anarchists of the collectivist and communist schools, contrary to anarcho-capitalists, would omit the first of these, since market forces are supported by governmental enforcement of private property rights: Kinna, Ruth, Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide (2005), 25.


Previously at http://www.edns.net/; see http://web.archive.org/web/19981201040715/http://www.edns.net/.


Rony, Ellan & Rony, Peter, The Domain Name Handbook: High Stakes and Strategies in Cyberspace (1998), 544


Australian Root Server Consortium - see http://www.aursc.ah.net/. Two other similar projects, uDNS and AlterNIC, are not only defunct but also no longer live on the Web.


Mueller, Milton, Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace (2002), 220–221


That is, the service becomes more valuable when more people use it: see Katz, M L & Shapiro, C, Technology Adoption in the Presence of Network Externalities (1986).


Mueller, Milton, Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace (2002), 56


Higgs, S, Applying Game Theory To The Domain Name Root System (2002)


See http://www.publicroot.org/, a project to unify all known operational TLDs under a single independently-maintained root.


Weber, Rolf H, Regulatory Models for the Online World (2002), 80, 83–84