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Playing the Long Game at the Internet Governance Poker Table

Poker players say if you can’t spot the fish within your first 15 minutes at the table, you’re the fish. With that in mind, I’m tempted to ask ICANN President Fadi Chehade who’s the fish in the high-stakes game of global Internet governance we’re now playing.

In 2013, ICANN dramatically changed its course in the global Internet governance debate. For a decade ICANN largely stayed out of the game, allowing stakeholders to defend the multi-stakeholder model where private sector and civil society are on equal footing with governments. But in 2013 ICANN went on the offensive, leading the Montevideo Declaration for “accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA.” Now ICANN is teaming with Brazil’s president on a conference in Sao Paolo this April on the future of Internet Governance.

ICANN’s goals seem noble. Few in the global Internet community would argue against expanding multistakeholder principles and changing the tenor of an increasingly contentious conversation about Internet governance. But the venues in which ICANN has chosen to pursue those goals are treacherous.

The governments who participate in global intergovernmental process are masters of the “long game”. Over the course of several years, they know that seemingly minor gains add up, and that UN vote trading can set the stage for major victories.

ICANN’s new ally, the Government of Brazil, is a master of the long game. Brazil is now saying the right things about multistakeholder values, and has leveraged Snowden’s revelations to portray the United States as a poor steward for Internet freedom. And it seems the US government, on seeing the hand dealt by Snowden, has decided to fold its cards and scale back its legacy leadership role in Internet governance. Given all that, Brazil starts to look like a pretty good ally to ICANN.

But at this level of a global political game, if you aren’t cynical you aren’t paying close enough attention.

Brazil is the “B” in “BRIC”, the loose alliance of Brazil, Russia, India and China that has been advocating to put ICANN functions under the control of a intergovernmental body like the UN. Just look at the proposal Brazil put to the UN in 2011, calling for “a new global body”... “within the UN system” to “develop and establish international public policies” for the Internet, and to “oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the internet.” So much for Brazil’s beliefs about private sector and civil society preserving any role in Internet governance.

But wait, it’s possible Brazil has abandoned its previous belief in the preeminent power of governments, and now embraces the multistakeholder model. But let’s at least entertain the possibility that Brazil has an ulterior motive in mind as it supports ICANN’s quest for “accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA”.

So what does Brazil stand to gain from helping ICANN shed its legacy links and accountability commitments with the US Government? Well, Brazil probably understands that an IANA contract no longer controlled by the US would be an easier takeover target for the UN. Or if ICANN were to get permanent control of the IANA contract, what’s left to prevent the UN from taking control of ICANN?

The smart play for Brazil’s long game is to show support for the multistakeholder model—if only to fatten the pot for when the UN eventually plays the stronger hand.

It’s a pretty good bet that Brazil knows who’s the fish at this table. Do we?

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice

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Another old saying amongst poker players is Mike O'Connor  –  Jan 28, 2014 12:33 PM

Another old saying amongst poker players is “win late.”  I think that may be the way this game turns out

Take a look at Phil Corwin’s post about the recent USG response to all this.  I think the old hands are still at the table. 

Here’s the link - http://www.circleid.com/posts/20140124_usg_provides_first_official_statement_on_montevideo_brazil/

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