A Canadian think-tank has pulled together a global group of 25 experts, including academics and politicians, to find ways to preserve internet freedom at a time when privacy and security issues are causing public concern.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) helped organize a commission undertaking a two-year study aimed at finding "a strategic vision for the future of internet governance."

'The real risk – it’s certainly a risk after Snowden....is that we’ll see a balkanization of the internet as governments try to erect walls to control the flow of information' - Fen Osler Hampson, CIGI

The commission was launched in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum and follows in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden espionage revelations as well as security breaches in the corporate world.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt will head the group, which also will draw on the expertise of Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"The rapid evolution of the net has been made possible by the open and flexible model by which it has evolved and been governed. But increasingly this is coming under attack,” Bildt said in a statement Wednesday.

“And this is happening as issues of net freedom, net security and net surveillance are increasingly debated. Net freedom is as fundamental as freedom of information and freedom of speech in our societies," he said.

While countries such as China seek to control the internet by working hand-in-hand with ISP services, court decisions, regulatory regimes and government laws governing content can also hamper internet freedom.

Canada's CIGI worked with Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs to create the group.

Fen Osler Hampson, director of CIGI's global security program, says there is increasing risk that countries will try to control the architecture of the internet as they seek to enhance security.

Worry about government meddling

“One of the reasons it works so well is that it’s largely managed through private corporations. Up until now there hasn’t been a large amount of government interference but the real risk – it’s certainly a risk after Snowden....is that we’ll see a balkanization of the internet as governments try to erect walls to control the flow of information,” he said in an interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

Hampson says he worries about barriers that could slow down innovation and the development of knowledge.

The big challenge is that there is little thought about cooperation in regulatory standards across international borders, he said, but a decision by a judge in the U.S. can have a wide-ranging impact.

A recent U.S. decision striking down net neutrality is one example, as it could leave smaller carriers at the mercy of big ones, such as Verizon.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do in what is clearly a very ambitious two-year study is to identify some clear rules of the road that will ensure security, privacy, freedom of access,” Hampson said.

Corrections

  • The Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation helped spearhead the study of ways to preserve internet freedom. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information.
    Jan 23, 2014 12:22 PM ET