An interview with Kathy Brown – The biggest challenges of the Internet

Late November, Kathy Brown announced that she would be stepping down as CEO of the Internet Society. While preparing for her next chapter, she reflected on her time at the Internet Society and shared her thoughts on how the Internet itself has evolved during her tenure.

The Internet Society: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Internet since you joined the Internet Society?

Kathy Brown: When I joined the Internet Society nearly five years ago, there were about 3 billion people online. Since then, that number has grown by almost a billion, but, still, not everyone is connected. The Internet Society has helped bring Internet access to the hardest-to-reach places on earth, including remote regions in the Caucasus and indigenous communities in South America, but there remain twice as many people online in the developed world than in the developing world, and the digital gender gap is widening.

There’s also been a trend toward consolidation, with fewer companies controlling more and more, and the Internet getting increasingly centralized. We’ve seen governments using the Internet in good, but also bad ways, such as shutdowns, and we’ve seen criminals finding ways to exploit it.

“Kathy undertook the leadership of the Internet Society after Lynn St. Amour’s enormously successful reign. Building on the base that Lynn established, Kathy expanded the international footprint of the organization and increased ISOC’s services to its members and participants. Of particular note during Kathy’s term of service was the “IANA transition” and a tumultuous WCIT. ISOC became a source of reliable international reporting and analysis for many, including me. The activity level of the chapters increased notably and positioned ISOC as a global player in the world of Internet Governance debate. I thank her for her diligent leadership and wish her well in the next phase of her busy life.”

– Vint Cerf, Founding President of the Internet Society; Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google

These forces aren’t trivial. We know that when people are able to access the Internet, they can do incredible things. They can access educational opportunities and healthcare. They can create business and participate in markets that were inaccessible to them before. They can preserve their local languages and culture. And they can build communities. We sense that we are at a crossroads where we must double down on a commitment to preserve these opportunities and combat the forces that would thwart it.

How has the Internet Society adapted to an increasingly-complex Internet technology and policy landscape?

The Internet was founded with the values of openness, collaboration, and inclusion. In that spirit, we’ve created partnerships and strengthened our regional presence, increasing our ability to collaborate across the world on different projects.

“Kathy’s dedication and contribution to shaping the Internet Society to what it is today has been exemplary. Characterised by strategic thinking, innovative ideas and, most valuable, her tireless efforts to increase the credibility and visibility of ISOC globally and specifically in the Africa region. Her brilliance and guidance inspired us to do our best!”

– Alice Munyua, Board member of Global Digital Partners and former Internet Society Trustee, Kenya 

We understand that people are legitimately concerned about safety and security, and we’ve adopted the collaborative security approach to address those complex and challenging issues. Solutions will take work; we need those with a stake in the outcome to have a voice on matters of personal safety, privacy, and autonomy. This collaborative approach has illuminated the MANRS initiative —a growing number of providers, government, and technologists working to improve global routing security.

Meanwhile, the Internet of Things is growing exponentially, and while innovative networked approaches to modern living holds great promise, they also come with great risk. Many IoT devices are “insecure by design,” without basic security and privacy built in, and many consumers aren’t aware of the risks – to themselves and to the Internet itself. So, we have partnered with Consumers International to educate consumers and the Internet Society’s Online Trust Alliance has developed the IoT Trust Framework to specifically address the problem of device security.  Our goal is to help consumers choose wisely when connecting any particular device to the Internet.

“Kathy’s strong leadership shaped the future of the Internet Society and the broader Internet. She advocated tirelessly that we must put people at the center of the Internet – and that we must be champions for the positive future we want to see. The changes she has brought about have been both deep and wide-ranging. Kathy leaves the Internet Society with a solid structure and a sound future plan. It has been a pleasure to work with her and I am grateful for all she has done.”

– Gonzalo Camarillo, Chair, Internet Society Board of Trustees

What is the most important role the Internet Society can play in the future of the Internet? What can others do to make a difference? 

First and foremost, we must stand up for an Internet that puts people at the center – values core to the Internet Society. Last year we launched a “futures” report that explores the cross winds that could change the Internet as we know it.  We heard from our community that the challenges to an open and trusted Internet have never been greater, and we also heard that, as a global organization, we have a unique role to speak on tech development and policy. We must continue to advocate passionately and fearlessly to ensure that everyone has access to an Internet that benefits each one of us. We cannot make meaningful change if we lose sight of that focus: people are the heart of the Internet.

“As Internet Society CEO, Kathy has been an unfailing supporter of the Internet Engineering Task Force and the broader Internet technical community. Her leadership and strategic vision were particularly critical to the success of the IANA stewardship transition and to the evolution of the IETF’s administrative structure.”

– Alissa Cooper, IETF Chair

I’m delighted to pass the baton next month to our new CEO, Andrew Sullivan. Andrew is a deep thinker on technology and society: he was an indispensable partner in our policy advocacy during the IANA transition —a known and trusted leader who is ready for the challenges that face us.

Looking back at your work at the Internet Society, what are you most proud of?

In the past five years, the Internet Society has strengthened its community globally, turned its focus to core issues, and mobilized people around the world to take action to protect the Internet. We’ve built strong relationships with our members and partners, strengthened our financial base, and supported the IETF as it’s accomplished its own vision. Our Chapters have been able to do more through training and the Beyond the Net Program, which funds local projects around the world. And we’ve gotten better at telling our story through our new website, our social media presence, and in our engagement on the ground with people who make the Internet work.

“Kathy Brown brought a fresh, strong, personal style to ISOC. She rolled up her sleeves and took up the work with gusto and contagious energy. She listened to many diverse points of view to define her mission and executed strongly and merrily. She has helped ISOC stay strong and present in the fields where it has to be seen and heard, and in many ways, such as through timely, cogent, and relevant briefings, able to exert influence worldwide. I enjoyed every interaction with her!”

– Alejandro Pisanty, Professor, UNAM (National University of Mexico) and former Internet Society Trustee

During our 25th anniversary, we were able to celebrate not just where we are, but how we got here – and we kept coming back to our community, which includes our members, global Chapters, Organization Members, and staff. They are strong. They are passionate, capable, and knowledgeable – and they’re committed to the idea that the Internet belongs to everyone. They’ve demonstrated it through their work and dedication.

I’m honored to have been part of this Society.  The Internet will continue to shape the future, and I am proud that the Internet Society will use its formidable talents to ensure that it remains a force for good in the world.

Images ©Stonehouse Photographic and Tsutsumida Pictures

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