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Much Ado About WCIT-12 and Multi-Stakeholderism

In the last month of last year, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) ended in Dubai amid, not hugs and fanfare, but finger-pointing and acrimony. The end, much anticipated as it was, wasn’t the finest hour for international cooperation for the global public interest.

Looking back, one would be forgiven to conclude that the WCIT-12 was doomed to fail. Never mind the fact that a lot of effort went into preparing for the conference, the issues were many and complex, the parties dug in, and in the end, there wasn’t much goodwill left to bridge the differences between them. Broadly speaking, the WCIT-12 camps were two: one camp agreeing to the final treaty, and the other (including the US) refusing to sign it. A third camp consisted of those countries that were ineligible to cast their vote on the treaty.

The US based its arguments and opposition to the final treaty on five key issues, namely: (i) a perceived risk of applying the treaty to Internet Service Providers, governments or private network operators, (ii) spam, (iii) network security, (iv) Internet governance, and (v) the extension of the scope of the ITRs to include the Internet. Although the US arguments are fervent and sound coherent, many of them on closer examination are found to have more holes than Swiss cheese. Indeed, much of the sanctimonious noise from the US is mainly about protecting its national interest, and not genuine multi-stakeholderism.

US unilateralism and Internet governance

Take the issue of Internet governance. A lot of talk about the present Internet governance model being multi-stakeholder is bunk, and divorced from reality. This is especially the case with regards to developing countries, and Africa in particular. Not only is Africa’s participation in Internet governance woeful, its share of global Internet economy is pittance. Google’s 53.5 thousand employees generated far more revenue per capita ($0.7 million) in 2011 than the per capita GDP ($1,966) of all of 842 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, it is folly for the US to decry the prospect of inserting “government control over Internet governance” especially the naming and addressing functions in the final treaty of WCIT-12. One only has to review the IANA Contract to see the chokehold the US government has over ICANN. The IANA Contract insists (section C.2.1) that the Contractor, ICANN, must be a wholly U.S. owned and operated firm (or US college or university), and incorporated in the US under US laws.

As if that is not enough control, the IANA Contract also adds that the Contractor must maintain a physical address in the US, and “be able to demonstrate that all primary operations and systems” remain in the US, and that the US government reserves the right inspect the premises, systems, and processes” of all components used to meet the obligations of the contract. Please tell me where multi-stakeholderism is in all of this.

The global DNS is based on a single authoritative root, and according to ICANN it is important that the content and operation of that root be coordinated by a central entity. ICANN is that entity, and under contract with the US-government to manage that root. Hence the logic: whoever controls the IANA contract controls the root, and we can talk about multi-stakeholderism until the cows come home, and it won’t mean a thing. As a former member of the ICANN Board’s IANA Committee I can tell you that the US-government does not take its oversight over the IANA function lightly, and this very role belies the incessant claims of its commitment to the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.

Weakening the multi-stakeholder model

Other areas and instances in which the US has flexed its muscle, and further weakened the multi-stakeholder model include the new gTLD program, and the management of the ICANN’s registry contracts. Barely a month before the new gTLD application window was to open in January 2012, the US Senate and House of Representatives held much-heralded hearings on the new gTLD program.

Many observers felt apprehensive about the prospect of the entire program being derailed by congressional fiat, and not the multi-stakeholder process. It is not hard to imagine that a hearing by, say, the Kenyan Parliament would have received less, if any, attention. To its credit, the US Department of Commerce (DOC) came out strongly in favor of the continuation of the program, thus helping avoid having it scuttled by Congress.

The USDOC also flexed its muscle late last year when it issued an amendment to the renewal of the ICANN-Verisign .COM contract. Fittingly, the two-page USDOC amendment trumped the 21-page ICANN-Verisign contract, demonstrating in no uncertain terms who really is in charge.

Although the USDOC said the amendment was in the public interest, it was their own assessment of what that interest is. They didn’t have to check with the rest of the world, who also buy .COM domains and have views on the public interest. Although ICANN opened the renewal of the .COM draft with Verisign to public comment (which is standard ICANN operating procedure), the USDOC still reserved, and exercised their right to intervene when it felt necessary. Again, the reality is that the US government can act unilaterally when it so decides.

The road to hell

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. No matter how well-intentioned the position of the US, the fact of the matter is that the much heralded multi-stakeholder model is broken, and doesn’t work for much of the world. Besides, why should people trust the judgment of the US which, in its infinite wisdom dragged the world into an unjustified and devastating war in Iraq?

With the conclusion of WCIT-12, a feeling of accomplishment seems to have come over many who so ardently fought against the ITU, and refused to sign the final treaty. Contrary to what many think, the ITU is not irrelevant to the Internet governance debate. Telephony and the Internet are not irreversibly married, and besides the ITU provides much more space than the deeply flawed multi-stakeholder Internet governance model that has ICANN at its heart. Although ICANN is addressing its shortcomings in making itself more relevant and responsive to its stakeholders, there is lot more work to be done.

It is also important to realize that although people might not, for now, be able to do much about US control, the bad blood that was spilled at WCIT-12 will poison the atmosphere in which US operates, further isolate it, and make it more difficult for it to get the support it needs to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Witness, for example, the difficulties the US has had pushing for any meaningful UN resolution on the Syrian crisis, and its failure to block efforts to declare Palestine a non-member State with observer status at the UN.

The road ahead

Sadly, this is not the first time the US has sulked out of international treaties and organizations, as it did to UNESCO in the early 1980’s, as there are calls for it to do so again, and as it does at the UN on an almost routine basis. More often than not, time has proven them wrong; not the other way around.

But all hope is not lost. The US clearly recognizes the need to increase the number of countries that subscribe to the multi-stakeholder model, and is committed to understanding “the needs and challenges countries around the world have with respect to the Internet.” Let’s hope that moving forward, that commitment would ring true, because unilateralism, in whatever guise, has never worked in an increasingly global world.

By Katim Seringe Touray, International Development Consultant, and writer on science, technology, and global affairs

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Some points I'd like to differ with. Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Jan 23, 2013 3:27 AM

Thanks. There are a few issues here I would differ with.

Some of the problem here doesn’t involve the fact that governments have a role in internet governance - it involves an objection to the ITU allowing scope creep into its mandate, to cover issues that more countries than just the USA (so hardly “exceptionalism” or “unilateralism”) have differed with.

As for Africa and its lack of participation in internet governance structures, part of it has to do with capacity building for government, industry and civil society stakeholders, while monopoly and competition policy issues some due to geography, given africa’s landlocked nature and difficult terrain that makes slow and expensive satellite connectivity a necessity, some due to government monopolies on the Internet and telecom, while others can be laid to the door of various other factors, such as a lack of stable government, cutting off the Internet to prevent opponents from organizing themselves using it (as in Syria, and before that in Qaddafi’s Libya ..).

I am afraid this can’t all be blamed on US exceptionalism, and while there is a substantial amount of aid in material, capacity building etc that can be (and is) provided by local and international NGOs who set up ISP exchange points, hold training workshops etc, a substantial local effort is also needed before you will see the situation improve.

On the DoC / NTIA oversight of ICANN / IANA, it has been mostly hands off, only stepping in where there have been cases where DoC appears to feel that there are governance issues involved. Or have you seen them try to revoke .cu, .sy, .kp just because Cuba, Syria and North Korea are in the state department’s OFAC blacklist of entities American firms are forbidden to trade with?

Thanks, but ... Katim Seringe Touray  –  Jan 26, 2013 11:14 PM

Thanks, Suresh for your comments. I'm sorry I couldn't respond to you earlier because I was in my village for the past few days and offline. Let me, very briefly, say this: 1. No matter how you characterize the position of those who did not vote for the WCIT-12 Final Treaty, theirs was a minority position. Besides, pushing back on the ITU doesn't get rid of the problem of the need to address some of the fundamental issues many are clamoring to have addressed. 2. I find it difficult to understand some of the reasons you suggest for Africa's "lack" of participation in Internet governance. For example, I'm hard put to see how Africa is "landlocked." In the same vein, my opinion is that government monopolies in Internet and telecoms are now becoming a thing of the past, contrary to what you suggest. I do, however, agree with you that capacity deficiencies are a major problem. 3. I do not anywhere blame the lack of African participation in Internet governance on US "exceptionalism." I just compare and contrast how the US and African benefit from the Internet economy. Indeed, we all know what excellent work has been done by US agencies and US-based organizations such as the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), and ICANN, to build Africa's ICT capacity and participation in Internet governance. 4. Regarding your conclusion that the DOC/NTIA oversight of ICANN/IANA "has been mostly hands off," I take it that this is coming from someone who has not had first hand experience with that relationship. As I indicated in my article, the relationship is more complicated than "hands off," as can be expected in these things. Again, many thanks for your comments!

Thank you, let me explain a few Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Jan 27, 2013 3:23 PM

Thank you, let me explain a few of my points. 1. I agree that issues exist and need to be addressed, but uprooting the current structure and entrusting it to ITU is not the solution here, as it removes whatever multistakeholderism (and it is substantial) that does currently exist in the process. Yes the current process needs reform, you won't hear me saying no to that. 2. As for "landlocked" - how many countries in Africa have a coastline, and so access to a submarine cable? Terrestrial fiber optic cable is being deployed, gradually. However a substantial number of countries still protect incumbent government owned telcos, or are conflict zones where it is just not feasible to lay terrestrial fiber because of the danger that your workers will be shot, or are still dense forest and desert through which it isn't easy or practicable to lay cable. 3. Thank you. 4. The relationship is "mostly" hands off as I said. NTIA has stepped in more than once, but so far it seems to let ICANN govern itself till such time as it sees an issue with ICANN following its own governance norms. So far you haven't seen extra territorial imposition of these norms on ccTLDs such as those of cuba or syria that the USG has banned trade with, just for example. Issues such as the rojadireta seizure tend to be at a rather lower level than ICANN and the root zone.

This blog post (and paper) makes interesting reading Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Jan 27, 2013 3:26 PM


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