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Committed or Condemned? The Words Matter

A number of people have reported on the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) Plenipotentiary in Guadalajara. Indeed even the Secretary of the ITU Hamadoun Touré felt the need to comment, saying:

“The ITU does not have the intention to take over the Internet. We are condemned to live together, so the question is whether we manage that well or not.”

A very firm statement—but it needs to be. Many still fear that the ITU is waiting for a moment of inattention by business and the Internet community and that it will pounce and attempt to place itself in a position of control.

But Dr Touré is giving a great example of how to ‘stay on message’ (as politicians are constantly told by their advisers) and his and the ITU’s embrace of the power of the Internet. Indeed he’s stayed on message for two years because it was two years ago in 2008 at an ICANN meeting in Cairo that he uttered almost identical words to those he used in Guadalajara (but with a bit more flourish!):

“For me, that’s the relationship between the Internet and the telecommunication world. And they are condemned to work together. It’s a condemned marriage. So better enjoy it. If you are—or if you know that you’re not going to get divorced in any case, because you’re condemned to live together, you better find a way to enjoy each other, and have kids in the process.

It has been alleged in some corners of the ITU that ITU wishes to govern the Internet.

And I have specifically said that I categorically deny that, and I say today again to you, it is not the case. My intention as Secretary-General of ITU is not to govern the Internet, but we need to work together, because there are developing countries that are in need of access.”

So—the message is clear: his aim is not to govern the Internet and the Internet and the telco world must live together.

But how can Dr Touré and the ITU further demonstrate the already clear message to non-believers? To those that think he wants to file for divorce and start another family? And what’s the agreed device that ensures there is no confusion in the roles performed by the ITU and Internet organisations?

From 2006-2010, I was the Executive Officer and Vice President at ICANN. I spent a good chunk of that time working on the strategy to conclude the Joint Project Agreement (JPA). During that time the argument centred on whether ending the JPA would somehow change ICANN’s relationship with the world. There was a lot of fear and concern then too. Some were worried that simply ending the JPA with no other statement would leave ICANN open to capture. But others believed that unless the JPA ended, it would demonstrate that one government had already captured the organization.

The way through the debate was to confirm what worked about ICANN—to make a commitment to the model once and for all and for the organization, in return, to commit to certain behaviours and activities. In short, to cement in place what worked and to commit to fixing the parts that didn’t.

The result was the “Affirmation of Commitments”.

What’s the lesson out of this?

As has been documented elsewhere, the ITU has recently also passed a resolution in Guadalajara that is all too typical of resolutions written by representatives of nation states with all the sensitivity that necessitates—it’s long and oozing with words.

But amongst all the words it called for the ITU:

“to explore ways and means for greater collaboration and coordination between ITU and relevant organizations involved in the development of IP-based networks and the future of the Internet, through cooperation agreements, as appropriate, in order to increase the role of ITU in Internet governance so as to ensure maximum benefits to the global community;”

It’s the ‘increase the role’ bit that is pivotal.

If that means to formally recognize the ITU’s role in supporting the modern Internet and promoting development in underdeveloped nations, but not expanding it so as to control in any way (as Dr Touré makes plain)—then we should be actively looking for ways to enshrine this important development.

If that’s the ITU’s position then I would advocate that the best way for Dr Touré to finally silence the doubters of his consistent statement of the last 2 years is to make a commitment to keep doing what the ITU does now to support the Internet and to not grow that remit in any way that seeks a controlling stake.

The choice of the words ‘Affirmation of Commitments’ in the ending of the JPA was very considered and deliberate. It was a declaration that ICANN would retain its limited, but important technical role and not grow beyond it, and would become more transparent and accountable through a process of iterative community reviews.

A commitment by the ITU and its colleague organisations to keep their relationships the same, to what is currently working well and to make it clear that the ITU has no designs other than what it does now, may ironically be the way to move forward in this seemingly unresolvable debate.

Cooperation Agreements, MOUs (call them what you like) are fine documents but they are malleable and they are different from a commitment. Committing to the private coordination of the Internet would be huge step forward.

After all, it’s those very organizations and the relationships they presently have and have held for years that have delivered the Internet as the magnificent non-centrally controlled and interoperable ecosystem it has become.

Committing to these relationships will help to overcome fears about the stability of the governance of the Internet and provide greater certainty for all.

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Co-designer of the TCP/IP Protocols & the Architecture of the Internet


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