In the two short decades since it became available for commercial use, the Internet has come to occupy a unique position in the business world. Novelty has quickly given way to an unthinking reliance. Like electricity and running water, the Internet is presumed to be available on roughly the same terms in the future as it is today.

Unthinking reliance invites unanticipated risks. More thought should be given to how deeply the Internet is embedded in an organization’s business plan, and to the Internet policies on which that plan relies.

In determining how deeply the Internet is embedded in a business or strategic plan, it may help to ask some probing questions. How would the sudden loss of email affect communications within your organization and with customers, suppliers and distributors? What would an interruption in such communications cost your organization? How would the disappearance of your website(s) affect marketing? How would the unavailability of the web affect research (including legal research) and other essential operations?

Such questions should prompt a searching reappraisal of the take-it-for-granted approach that many organizations understandably fall into. One of the Internet’s chief virtues is that it just works. But behind its rugged exterior lie a few facts that every counsel should know:

  • The Internet functions as a global network because of unified technical standards and policies
  • Those standards and policies, which affect the functionality of email and the web alike, are primarily decided and administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
  • ICANN invites all stakeholders—governments, businesses, NGOs, and individuals—to participate in the formation of such standards and policies

In short, the standards and policies that shape how the Internet operates, what features it offers, how domain name disputes are decided, and what business opportunities on the Internet open up or terminate are subject to policy debates that occur beyond the horizon for many organizations.

Last year alone, ICANN approved the introduction of a new Top Level Domain (TLD) for pornography (.xxx) and a program to add a limitless variety of new TLDs. Already these decisions have shifted and disrupted business plans. But these are hardly the only policy decisions within ICANN’s power that present threats and opportunities:

  • Many businesses rely on the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy, an out-of-court procedure for resolving domain names. Less well known is that the policy will come up for a thoroughgoing review after the first new TLDs go live next year.
  • Cybersquatting victims and law enforcement officials rely on ICANN’s WHOIS policies that require Internet domain registrants to disclose certain information and registrars to maintain that information in a publicly accessible database. A community review team has determined that those policies are ineffective and badly enforced. If adopted, its recommendations would enhance the enforcement of domain name abuse policies of all kinds.

Internet policy presents business risk. And perhaps the most dangerous risk of all is the international conflict over ICANN’s authority. Its multi-stakeholder model of governance that welcomes every stakeholder to contribute to the development or modification of Internet policies is opposed by China, Russia and their allies who are openly clamoring for governments to have exclusive decision-making power over Internet policy. If they prevail, businesses will have little say in establishing Internet policies that affect them.

Internet policy affects every organization—not just those in Silicon Valley. McKinsey recently published a groundbreaking report finding that 75 percent of the economic value produced by the Internet benefits traditional industries, not Internet-based enterprises. Broad reliance on the Internet means that unsound policies have the power to harm every sector of the economy.

With the risks and opportunities that the Internet presents, there never has been a more important time to incorporate Internet policies into your business and strategic plans.