WGIG's proposed internet governance forum is widely supported, but the US is unlikely to give up its power

Who should have the over the internet? The battle continued at the second WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) held in Tunis last week, and two New Zealanders who are closely involved have plenty to say.

Frank March, senior specialist adviser at the Information Technology policy group of the Ministry of Economic Development, took leave from the MED to take up the role of senior programme advisor with the WGIG secretariat. He was one of 39 participants in the WGIG (Working Group on Internet Governance) that was formed after the first WSIS in 2003.

WGIG’s conclusions have been widely criticised by IT spokespeople from various countries. The general opinion is that WGIG’s report takes in too many issues and in the process loses its focus on the core question of internet governance.

WGIG says the group was not expected to reach a consensus but to discuss the matters under dispute and to come up with options to be discussed further at WSIS in Tunis.

The WGIG report proposed four models of future governance of the internet. The first is a global internet council (GIC), consisting of members from governments and other stakeholders. GIC would take over the functions currently performed by the US Department of Commerce and it would also replace the GAC (Governmental Advisory Committee).

The second model sees no need for a specific overseeing organisation, but suggests GAC be enhanced to meet the concerns of some governments on certain issues.

The third model recommends an International Internet Council (IIC) that would be less powerful than the proposed GIC but would be responsible for overseeing the domain and IP-numbering functions of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and IANA (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority).

The fourth model calls for three separate institutions: a Global Internet Policy Council; a World Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (WICANN), to take over ICANN’s role; and a Global Internet Governance Forum (GIGF).

All the issues that were on the
table at the first WSIS are still on the table and the debate will go on
for a long time

In addition to these four models, the WGIG report sees the need to create a new internet governance forum linked to the United Nations. This forum would be open to all stakeholders across the world and would work with any of the four models. There is widespread support for the establishment of an internet governance forum, according to the book Reforming Internet Governance: Perspectives from the Working Group on Internet Governance, produced by the WGIG. This will be launched at Tunis. If the governance forum comes to life, it would be an achievement for the WSIS.

However, March is fairly certain that no concrete solution will come out of the summit.

“All the issues that were on the table for the first WSIS are still on the table, and the debate will go on for a long time,” he says.

Colin Jackson, the president of InternetNZ, also doubts that WSIS will lead to any real solutions.

“[There will be] little agreement on internet governance, I suspect,” he says. “Other areas will, no doubt, show results, such as the better use of IT in developing countries and innovative uses of IT in the service of civil society in many countries, including New Zealand.”

Jackson is in favour of WGIG’s suggestion of an advisory forum for governments or a “beefed-up” GAC (ICANN’s government advisory committee).

“These strike me as highly sensible and recognise of the sovereign role governments have. Some governments find it offensive that they are asked to play a merely advisory role.”

He is less convinced about an international bureaucracy taking over ICANN’s functions or having oversight of it. To illustrate how inefficient this could be Jackson gives the example of the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and how for many years it refused to acknowledge the internet’s existence because the ITU was promoting alternative technical standards to TCP/IP. The ITU still regards TCP/IP as only a de facto standard, when the reality is that IETF’s (Internet Engineering Task Force) standards have been taken up by every internet user in the world.

Currently, the US government is the only government that has input into internet governance and, even though that sounds a bit undemocratic, the system works. Why does it have to change asks March.

“Non-US countries ask why [the US] holds a veto over the root and why the root is run by a US corporation [ICANN],” says Jackson. “This is because of political reasons. The US does not just have a de facto hold over the root; it is exerting its control. Non-US countries see the net as critical infrastructure, just as the US does the difference for them is they see parts of it under control of another government.”

Frank March, on the other hand, says that the situation doesn’t necessarily have to change.

“The internet is currently running well and securely. Nothing is broken,” he says. “ICANN has come a long way and is now an open organisation that communicates relatively well with stakeholder groups.

“The big concern is [about] where we are going. For example, the developing countries feel that they are disadvantaged by the digital divide.”

He says that the current system and institutions are working but there is a need for a greater level of international agreement. But the US government is unwilling to let go of its power.

“Reluctant is an understatement.” says Jackson. “They have made some very strong statements that they are not going to. This is a direction change from a few years ago when they kept saying they were trying to get out of the internet governance business.”

March says that there will be no changes under the Bush administration.

“They will not contemplate any changes. But, if we look ahead five years, change is possible, provided there is a change of administration.”

What could happen if an agreement is not reached?

“The important thing is to preserve stability,” says Jackson. “The root zone, which is what ICANN controls and US has veto over, is only the root by consensus.

“Everybody’s DNS points at the root, but technically it could point anywhere. People have tried to create alternate roots in the past and some of them are probably still out there.”

If there were multiple roots out there this could create big problems. Domain names could be the same in different competing DNS system.

“And then how would you know that your customers would reach you?” he asks.

How would New Zealand be affected by the possible changes in the running of the internet? Jackson says that if a New Zealand company is doing business with people in a country where the government decrees they use an alternative root, it could be problematic sending emails, or even veiwing each other’s websites.

“The whole internet addressing regime, which is currently so easy to understand, would get a lot harder to deal with.”

What the various countries want

In all probability WSIS in Tunis will just be another small step towards an agreement.

Frank March explains that the countries of the world are basically divided into four groups:

  • Countries that want direct involvement of governments and a UN organ (The ITU) taking over the whole domain and IP-numbering system. Pakistan and a number of Arab countries belong to this group.

  • Countries that want direct involvement of governments in key decision areas of the IP-numbering system. China, Brazil and South Africa are examples here.

  • Countries that have no problem with the existing system but want greater international involvement. The process towards internationalised internet governance should be cautious and evolutionary. New Zealand belongs to this group.

  • Countries that do not want to change the existing system.

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