Who should govern the internet?

Are committees cul-de-sacs into which good ideas are lured and then quietly strangled? Frank March suggests that might not be the case

I spent most of the first half of 2005 in Geneva working with the secretariat of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG).

WGIG was established by the United Nations at the request of the Geneva meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) because of concerns expressed by many countries about the roles of both ICANN and the US government over critical internet resources, such as the domain name system and the root servers on which it relies.

Some countries are also worried insufficient action is being taken with regard to a wide range of other problems centering on applications that use the internet. Examples include spam, intellectual property issues, the cost of international inter-connectivity and, of special interest to developing countries, a perception that that the digital divide between the information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is widening.

From the beginning, there was controversy about greater participation by governments and especially any suggestions the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) be involved with internet management.

There was concern that any change to current arrangements could threaten the stability and safety of the internet, (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”). There was also a fear that allowing countries with dubious human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and China, to exercise control over the internet could result in arbitrary restrictions on the rights and freedoms of all internet users.

WGIG produced a report in mid-July which made recommendations concerning a wide range of issues it considered relevant to internet governance. These included administration of the root zone files of the DNS and the need for oversight to be internationalised, freedom of expression; capacity building in developing countries, and the need for meaningful participation in global policy development by all stakeholders. Remarkably, although WGIG was not intended to be a negotiating body, it reached consensus on most of its report items. The exception was a section outlining four possible institutional models for internet governance oversight to replace what it describes as unilateral control by the US government.

So, is there a legitimate case for governments to be involved in internet governance? Let’s take the .xxx saga as an example. On June 1, ICANN agreed, in principle, to establishing the “.xxx” TLD, essentially as a play-pen for online porn. There are arguments for and against this idea, but there is no question that ICANN has the right, and the responsibility, to make this decision. The Bush administration has been coming under intense pressure from conservative Christian elements in the US to step in and stop .xxx from proceeding. In this they are aligned with a number of countries with conservative Islamic and Christian traditions, notably Syria and Brazil. There is a certain irony about this situation. The US has hitherto not interfered with ICANN decision-making.

Now, the very countries expressing the greatest concern about the ability of the US to exercise arbitrary power over the DNS are demanding that it do exactly this.

WGIG was set up as an embodiment of the WSIS principles for management of the internet: “multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of [all stakeholders].” The private sector and civil society are essential to ongoing innovation and service provision. At the same time, governments have a role in determining public policy issues which arise from the role of the internet in economic and social development, and the delivery of essential services at both global and national levels.

The WGIG report is the basis of the next phase of discussions in the WSIS process at PrepCom-3 now taking place in Geneva. It is unlikely the issues will be resolved there, nor will they be by the time of the Tunis Summit in November.

But, I believe that some things have been achieved. WGIG has shown that a genuinely multi-stakeholder process can work effectively. WGIG adopted some of ICANN’s procedures, such as “real-time captioning” and webcasting, thus demonstrating for governments how the internet can lead to improved transparency, open consultation and cooperation. There is a better understanding on the part of at least some of the technical community about the legitimate concerns of governments, especially those from the developing world. And there is no question that the quality of the debate in Tunis will be of a much higher standard than it was two years ago in Geneva.

March was senior programme adviser with the secretariat of the Working Group on Internet Governance while on leave from the Ministry of Economic Development

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