Internet governance debate heats up

The debate on future governance of the internet is heating up, with a United Nations ICT taskforce convening a "global forum" late last month on the subject and those prominent in the IT and political worlds having plenty to say around the edges.

The debate on future governance of the internet is heating up, with a United Nations ICT taskforce convening a “global forum” late last month on the subject and those prominent in the IT and political worlds having plenty to say around the edges.

Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet”, told the forum that the internet had developed openly and freely without much governmental or other oversight because its technical rules had been developed openly and adopted voluntarily. The very openness of internet design has fuelled its evolution, as participants in its operations and development have been able to contribute new ideas and applications, he says.

As the internet continued to evolve it had begun to incorporate functions that had long been the subject of considerable regulation, and this has raised the question whether it needs more governing, Cerf says. But more important are the uses to which the internet is put. If there is a need to govern, one should focus more on the use and abuse of the network and less on its operations, he suggests. A number of national lobbies are proposing a governmental and intergovernmental role in such low-level technical matters as administration of domain name spaces and management of the root DNS servers

Governance should be thought of as the steps taken collectively to facilitate the spread, development and collective use of the internet, Cerf says. For instance, e-commerce could be promoted by adopting international procedures for the use of signatures, mechanisms to settle disputes of international electronic transactions, treatment of international transaction taxes and protection of intellectual property.

New Zealand has already made strides in this direction with the Electronic Transactions Act.

Internet use can help achieve the UN’s “millennium” development goals in the areas of poverty reduction, education and health care, the environment and gender equality, Cerf says. The forum, he suggests, should be asking how the internet community can facilitate the constructive use of the internet.

He points to the engineering maxim “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, and doctors’ Hippocratic oath, beginning “first do no harm”. The technical aspects of the internet are evolving very openly in forums open to all, he says. Rules for internet use are less well developed and deserve more consideration. “I would caution, however, that one should strive not to stifle the innovation and freedom to create that the internet offers.”

Paul Twomey, president and CEO of internet governing body Icann, told the forum Icann’s mandate is already similar to that last year’s World Summit on the Information Society had required for a working group to be established by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.???

Richard McCormack, honorary chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), notes that there are now 850 million internet users, twice as many as in 2000. He stresses the need to focus on areas where government intervention is necessary. The working group on internet governance should be a steering committee rather than a rule-making body, he says, and should contribute to the expansion of the Internet in both developing and developed countries.

It is true that many issues are technical, but technology is not outside of politics, Lyndall Shope-Mafole, chairwoman of South Africa’s National Commission on Information Society and Development, told the forum. The issue is not that something is broken and should be fixed.

The issue is rather legitimacy of the process, and this is why developing countries have brought the issue of Internet governance to the United Nations, “which we feel represents us”, she says.

Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of South Africa’s Association for Progressive Communication, says the issue of internet governance relates to the greater global governance issue. Developing countries have concerns with global bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and international financial institutions. There are global governance concerns, if not a global governance crisis, she says. On the other hand, there was a growing overlapping of interests among different stakeholders rather than a north-south divide. “In many developing countries, the concerns of civil society are the same as those of the private sector.”

New Zealand’s civil society lobby, along with those of many other countries, has been striving to point out, however, that the two lobbies’ sets of concerns are not identical.

The surrounding debate has generated a good deal of learned study, one example being a 115-page paper by San Diego University legal scholar Lawrence Solum. Solum, following author Lawrence Lessig, cautions that any governance and law-making measures should respect the layered structure of the internet, and not impose rules at one layer that have an unintended broader effect at another layer. A crude example of bad law would be to propose cutting physical internet links (the bottom layer of at least six) to solve a problem with unacceptable content (the top layer). Solum’s paper is here.

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