Unveiling the inner workings of i2Coalition: an exclusive interview

Edward G. | June 27, 2023

In a world heavily reliant on the digital landscape, the realm of cybersecurity and Internet infrastructure plays a pivotal role in shaping our online experiences. Behind the scenes, organizations like i2Coalition diligently work to address the challenges and advocate for a secure, open, and thriving Internet ecosystem. 

To shed light on their mission, accomplishments, and the challenges they face in safeguarding the digital realm, Atlas VPN, a proud member of i2Coalition, recently sat down with Christian Dawson, the Co-Founder of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, for an exclusive interview. 

From legislative initiatives and policy advocacy to advancing data privacy standards and addressing emerging threats, the interview provides an inside look into the dedicated efforts undertaken by i2Coalition and its members.

06 interview with i2coalition

Can you provide an overview of the i2Coalition and its mission?

We built the i2Coalition because we realized that most people don’t really understand what Internet infrastructure is. Most people either think of the Internet as their broadband provider or as the platforms they use daily, like social media companies. They don’t think of all the companies that provide all the important infrastructure in between.

For the most part, that’s okay—the typical Internet user doesn’t need to know how this infrastructure works, or even that it exists. The problem is when legislators, regulators, or people trying to solve problems online don’t know that this Internet infrastructure exists! They can sometimes try to solve those problems either ineffectively, or in ways that damage our industry or the Internet as a whole. 

Our goal is to educate those people, leveraging the collective voice and expertise of many of the companies that are leaders in the Internet’s infrastructure to help legislators and regulators solve problems in smart and constructive ways. Ultimately, we want to make the Internet a better, safer place, and part of that means ensuring that we don’t end up with poor legislative outcomes around the world.

What are some of the key challenges and issues that the Internet infrastructure industry is currently facing?

I will talk about some of the current challenges in a bit, but the truth is that most of our challenges are evergreen. We are now in our 11th year of operations, and one of the things we found is that there will always be a need to teach legislators and regulators how this stuff works for the simple reason that it’s really the legislative staffers who are doing all the hard work to try and solve problems online. However, those staffers change at a pretty alarming rate. As soon as you have one group up to speed on how the Internet functions and how to avoid really bad decisions, they move on to other roles, and you have to start all over again with a new cohort.

Over the years, we’ve built up quite an impressive network that gets us known by reputation with people working in tech policy. We tend to be able to get the ears of people working on policy proposals so we can get a lot of the worst ideas into much better shape before they ever get considered by a legislature. Even when a bad idea gets through, and we are faced with having to fight that bad law, our voice ends up carrying fairly well on a lot of subjects. I call this “being pretty good on defense.”

But since there’s always a need for more legislative and regulatory staffers to understand how our Internet infrastructure ecosystem works, I feel like we need to do better proactively on industry education. In essence, we need to “get better on offense,” though I don’t mean that in a confrontational way. Perhaps we need to build a curriculum that we can send people through or a resource repository of some kind. 

How does the i2Coalition work to address these challenges and advocate for the interests of its members?

We employ active lobbying resources in the United States and the European Union. A lobbyist can be a bad word, but in this case, we are merely discussing ensuring that our industry and its needs are understood. We rarely apply resources to anything that is even ideological. Most of the time, talking about how our networks work and how our customers use our services is enough.

We also spent a lot of time working on strengthening and supporting the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. That is basically the process by which global standards are set for the continued evolution of the world’s DNS operations, IP address management, and various other technical standards. The goal here is simple. The United Nations recognizes 193 countries. Most of the companies we work with maintain global networks. If they need to apply 197 different standards instead of one, things wouldn’t work so well. Therefore, we need to make sure the multistakeholder model works.

So basically, we just have teams of experts who know this stuff and make sure that we are in the right conversations to try and protect and preserve the type of environment the companies in our space need to continue to provide service to their customers on a regional or global scale.

Privacy and data protection are important concerns in today’s digital landscape. How does the i2Coalition promote privacy and data security?

Our members are on the front lines when it comes to defending consumer privacy. Most of the time, it goes hand-in-hand with good cybersecurity because you don’t want to collect any more data than you need, or that is a liability. Protecting our customer’s data and publicly identifiable information are the table stakes for building trust online. It’s really our member companies that are doing the hard work.

Where we come in is to defend their efforts and to show that those efforts make good practical and economic sense. I can’t tell you the number of proposals we have seen in bad legislation or bad proposals at places like ICANN that try to force the collection or publishing of unnecessary data elements in the name of a perceived public good. It’s rarely the right way to solve a problem. Those poor problem-solving pathways get worse when policymakers start talking about breaking strong encryption. Encryption keeps us safe, full stop. Period. Those seeking to undermine strong encryption need a better education, which we are happy to provide.

Can you discuss any recent initiatives or projects undertaken by the i2Coalition that have had a significant impact on the industry?

Late last year, the United States Supreme Court took up a couple of cases that focused attention on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This particular provision is an important one for our industry. It basically says that even if a provider touches the content their customers create, that doesn’t make them a publisher of that content. Without that important provision, the Internet would be a very different place. There wouldn’t be nearly as much freedom online if Internet providers needed to police all of the world’s content—and frankly, there would never again be a small business innovating new ideas in the space.

The organizations that we work with want to be responsible and work together to solve problems online. Together, we have found cool projects that we can do that don’t require us to try and upend the way the Internet functions. We undertook one such project with many of our VPN members called the VPN Trust Initiative. The goal there was to set some industry standards about ethical behavior in the VPN industry. We hope that by establishing a series of industry principles that we expect operators to behave under, we can use collective pressure to make that industry a better, safer place.

What are the main policy and regulatory issues that the i2Coalition is currently focused on?

If a lot of last year was focused on defending against attacks on industry intermediary protections, a lot of attention this year has been focused on global Internet blocking proposals. We have seen a few of them around the world in different forms. When a single jurisdiction blocks or takes down content at the domain or IP level, particularly when those blocks are applied to global infrastructure, that one jurisdiction is making decisions for the rest of the world. That’s a zero-sum game. The slippery slope we risk running down is one where our speech is only as free as the least free country. Clearly, that’s an area of concern worth focusing on.

We are also spending a lot of time and attention on transatlantic trade. The EU and the United States are core markets for us and our members. The problem is that they have very different privacy laws. Frameworks to manage these differences have come and gone, and we are trying to bring a new resilient one into being.

Regarding digital trade, the best thing for our member companies is to have a firm understanding of our risks and responsibilities. We are working to help build a far more stable and clear model than exists now. Part of that involves pushing the United States to enact some simple and strategic surveillance reforms, which we will be working on for the latter half of this year.

How does the i2Coalition collaborate with other industry stakeholders, policymakers, and governments to advance its goals?

We have always believed that you can do more together than apart. It’s why we brought member companies together to form a singular voice. It’s also why we partner with as many aligned associations as possible to accomplish our goals.

We are part of an ecosystem: we not only work with other tech trade associations, but lots of other thought leaders in academic circles, areas of library and culture, civil society, and even law-enforcement who are trying to figure out the best ways to do things efficiently through proper due process. Of course, we also are constantly talking with lawmakers and policy people. Fostering those relationships remains central to what we do.

Are there any specific trends or developments that you believe will shape the future of the Internet infrastructure?

Right now, there is a ton of ink being spilled about how AI will change everything. I’m not saying that’s not true, but at the same time our industry has been dealing with AI for a long time now. We’ve called it machine learning and it’s built into a lot of what we do. This isn’t to say that some of the new challenges posed by ubiquitous generative AI aren’t really interesting and potentially problematic, because they definitely are. My concerns aren’t centered around any specific new technology, but people’s perception of those technologies.

The Internet has grown into what It is today thanks to a whole lot of policymakers making smart decisions and deciding not to regulate new ideas into oblivion. The experimentation that brought us the modern Internet has brought us lots of great things. A lot of problems, too, but ultimately a better and more connected world. For the most part, and within reason, Web3—which also has plenty of faults—is also being afforded that discretion.

The thing about people’s perception around AI today is that a lot of that perception is focused on fear of what it could become. This could lead us down paths to quick regulation of things we don’t fully understand. I think, as things get more complex, being a group whose job it is to explain how things work gets even more important. It looks like our job is going to get harder and harder, but more and more essential.

Is there anything individual people can do to aid in developing a safe, private, and open internet infrastructure? 

There are plenty of things that users can do to support a free and open Internet, just from the perspective of the companies that build it. You can get involved with the Internet Society, which does a lot of the same work that we do but from a user perspective. You can also get involved with an ICANN or many of the other Internet, governance policy, and standards-setting bodies.

We encourage people to support the kinds of companies that are investing their time and resources on keeping the Internet this incredible tool for free expression, ideas, and innovation. When we launch our VPN Trust Seal in September, it will be a great way for consumers to quickly see which providers have made that commitment.

When you look at the broader list of companies who make up our membership, they tend to be the ones that care. They’re businesses are commercial entities, sure, but the companies we work with are the ones that decided they’re willing to make the effort on behalf of the industry and the people around the world who use the infrastructure, tools, and platforms they build. If you care about the open Internet, they are good ones to support.

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Edward G.

Edward G.

Cybersecurity Researcher and Publisher at Atlas VPN. My mission is to scan the ever-evolving cybercrime landscape to inform the public about the latest threats.

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