ICANN-UN debate comes to Wellington

What is ICANN and why does it govern the internet?

Discussions on internet governance can be expected to form a significant part of the ICANN deliberations in Wellington. The governance issue first emerged into prominence at the preparatory meetings for the first World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in 2003.

Some government representatives made it plain that they were dissatisfied with the current status of “governance” of the internet by ICANN. This is nominally a private industry body, but is seen by some as influenced by the US government’s Department of Commerce.

Another bone of contention is that the vast majority of the internet’s root servers are situated in the US, though there are mirrors in other countries, including New Zealand.

During the Geneva meeting, and the follow-up in Tunis last year, opposition to the status quo coalesced around the International Telecommunications Union, host of the WSIS and a subsidiary body of the United Nations. This was seen as an appropriate body to assume top-level governance of the internet, with national governments having an increased role in the parts of the network on their own territories.

A substantial lobby opposed any such move, opting for continuation of the ICANN structure. The opponents include InternetNZ, whose then-president (and current executive director) Keith Davidson said if the change was intended to remedy supposed control by one government, that of the US, then handing the internet into the control of 150 governments seemed a strange approach.

In the inter-conference period, at the behest of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a working group on internet governance (WGIG) was set up. Frank March, of New Zealand’s Ministry of Economic Development, served on the secretariat.

The first task of WGIG was to define “internet governance”. It settled on this working definition: “Internet governance is the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the internet.”

There is still debate as to whether its scope should be limited to the legal and societal aspects of internet use (such as intellectual property, protection from spam and pornography, assurance of adequate input by smaller countries) or whether governance should embrace aspects of the internet’s technical operation.

The working group came up with four alternative proposals. Three proposed additional bodies to co-ordinate action on aspects of the internet internationally, while the fourth was almost the status quo, but with a strengthening of the GAC. InternetNZ rejected all four, as did a number of other national domain administrations.

An important part of the recommendations which has met with more general agreement is the formation of a multi-stakeholder forum for ongoing debate on questions of internet governance.

Shortly following the publication of the WGIG’s conclusions, the US Department of Commerce reiterated its intention to keep control of the internet domain root systems to keep the network “stable and secure”. The force of this statement was disputed with some seeing it as an attack on the UN and WGIG proposals and other as no more than a restatement of an existing position.

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