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Internet Governance Back in the Limelight

Issues Are Still Not Unravelled

In my special role as adviser to the UN Broadband Commission I reported extensively in 2013 on the WCIT-12 conference in Dubai.

Unfortunately the world disagreed on a way forward in relation to internet governance. However, despite all the grandstanding of the USA and its western allies, simply ignoring it and saying “there is no room for governments to be involved in internet governance”—will not make the issue go away.

Idealistically, I certainly agree with the notion that the internet’s greatest gift to humanity is the ability to connect people, and when that happens everything will flow from there. The early history of the internet certainly proves that. But at the same time the world is a hostile place, containing terrorists, criminals, corrupt and evil governments, and unscrupulous companies and individuals. Whether we like it or not, to protect the incredibly valuable internet we do need to look after it. Unfortunately its free-flowing days are over.

The reality is that in one way or another nearly every country is already interfering in the internet—be it positively or negatively. On the positive side, for example—if it were not for the involvement of the US government we most certainly would not have the open internet that exists today. On the negative side, we see the effects of cybercrime, child pornography, terrorism, spying and so on. Most of these large-scale problems are international and will require some form of international cooperation to address them. Ignoring the need for this does not make those issues go away.

As mentioned in my earlier analyses (see links below to some earlier posts), the root problem surrounding the lack of international will to address this is the unwillingness of the international community to split the issues relating to internet governance so that they can each be addressed independently, rather than mixing them all together.

The American Obstacle

A key obstacle in all of this is the unique national telecommunications regime in the USA. Internet content services are classified as telecoms in their national legislation and regulating international telecoms issues would mean, in their eyes, regulating the internet—as in content—and they are totally opposed to this.

The rest of the world splits regulations between infrastructure and content, but in America the two are intertwined. Yet the fact that their stance on the relationship between the internet and telecommunications is unique in the world doesn’t stop them from addressing the issue as though their position represents the global status quo. And they added fear to the debate, saying that including internet (access) in the international telecommunications regulations would lead to internet (content) control by countries such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. In this way they were able to stifle any debate on the broader internet governance issues at WCIT-12 in Dubai.

Positive and Negative Government Interference

The recent developments surrounding ICANN put a renewed focus on some of the more technical and self-regulatory issues of internet governance. Over the years there has been very little, if any, government involvement in relation to the engineering side of the internet. This has largely been left, with enormous success, in the hands of the global engineering communities, and there are no indications or proposals suggesting any change to that. The engineering community is right to be extremely vocal on keeping these elements government-independent.

However the Snowdon revelations have also revealed a very nasty element of government involvement in the internet, completely undermining the American mantra to leave the internet alone. It has become clear that their interference in the internet was not just used to spy on possible terrorists—it was also used for political interference in the affairs of their allies; for economic espionage; and, according to the allegations, they even used malware to infiltrate computers and other devices.

Obviously this dealt a very severe blow to the grandstanding tactics of the USA on issues in relation to internet governance, and the reaction was particularly strong from the country’s international allies, as opposed to their political rivals—as well as from private American organisations, who are experiencing the commercial fall-out of their government’s interference in the internet.

Key lessons to be learned here are that trust is very precious—and, once lost, it is difficult to regain; and that transparency has to become a central element in whatever governments are doing in our increasingly connected and transparent world.

ICANN – a Positive Step Forward

As a result of this; we see the USA now finally willing to relinquish its control over ICANN, the organisation managing the domain registration of internet addresses—a semi-regulatory role with important commercial/competition elements linked to it.

As discussed below, US control of this body (perceived or otherwise) has become a lightning rod in recent years for those countries that opposed America’s dominance over the internet, and its decision to now yield control should appease these countries and increase the true international notion nature of the internet.

Unfortunately, however, the American international political issue is far broader than this, and the question will be whether the ICANN resolution will really lead to an overall improvement in the relationship between America, its allies and the rest of the global community regarding internet issues.

In relation to ICANN, back in the 1990s when the organisation was established the National Telecommunications Industry Agency (NTIA)—part of the US Department of Commerce—stated that its goal was to speedily make the organisation subject to international democratic control. It was envisaged that this would happen around 2003.

When it didn’t happen the European Union frequently addressed the issue and reminded the US government of this promise. It was only much later that non-European countries began to express their concern, and their sheer numbers became the dominant force behind the more recent requests to honour the promise. These countries used the International Telecommunication Union (a UN body) to address their concerns, and in some quarters this created the American ‘hatred’ of the ITU, which has become the most recent focal point of criticism against the organisation’s attempt to achieve international cooperation on internet governance.

International Telecommunications Regulations

Another issue under the control of the ITU are the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). They mainly handle network connections and, in some instances, the financial arrangements involved in that process. With the majority of these networks now carrying internet traffic the discussions here obviously include internet interconnections; however any debate that included the word “internet’ is strongly objected to by the USA.

The ending of American control over ICANN will not have any significant direct consequences, as the country didn’t ever really take effective control over the organisation, but the symbolism is very important. Nevertheless, this is also the right spot to acknowledge the American leadership, and thanks are due for their non-interference in the daily activities of ICANN, which has enabled the internet to grow in the way it has.

However, to highlight how poisoned the situation has become—along with the political hypocrisy surrounding internet governance the decision by NTIA was severely criticised by many American politicians on the right, who want America to be able to retain international control over these aspects of the internet, while, at the same time, they object to any government control by other governments in international internet affairs.

This attitude of there being one role for the USA and one for the rest of the world bothers many countries around the globe.

ICANN Needs Fostering

If the ICANN decision is in fact taken up then the immediate next step will have to be ensuring its ongoing independence. But it will be equally important to ensure a viable independent financial model for the organisation, and to establish that the organisation is strong enough to withstand the political interference it can expect will happen. Also, at this stage ICANN is far from being a democratic organisation and this needs to be resolved quickly so that it can gain true international credibility.

However, the ICANN decision will do little for the overall issue of internet governance. Because of its specifically technical focus it will not be able to play a larger role in the other issues of internet governance.

The Role of the International Community

So how do we address the broader aspects of internet governance? Again a lot of grandstanding here, with some countries claiming that not only is there no role for governments—there is also no role for international organisations controlled by their governments.

What might be forgotten is that it was the UN that addressed some of the issues in the first instance (Tunis Declaration 2005), and through them independent voluntary organisations based on multi-stakeholder participation were established—such as World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), with its many voluntary working groups, and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

While these bodies do not have any formal powers they and their summits have been instrumental in keeping the internet as free as possible, simply by ensuring that people from different countries, cultures, religions and social and economic circumstances keep talking to each other, addressing and discussing the many soft internet governance issues, and making common-sense suggestions that so far have been largely followed up by most (democratic) governments.

Internet Has Become a Key Political and Commercial Issue

The trouble now is that we cannot maintain the status quo that has been established by these organisations so far. The internet has become a far too important political development and, despite what is being said, governments increasingly want to control internet governance. It is too easy to say that this can be nicely divided between national issues—which can be governed by local governments—and international governance issues—which should be left alone. Security, privacy, piracy and terrorism know no borders and international governance of these issues can be left neither in the hands of 220 individual countries nor in the hands of the engineering internet community.

Many international issues are interwoven with commercial issues supported by connected devices, big data and data analytics and they will increasingly cross borders, and how are we going to handle this?

The telcos and the internet media companies have their own commercial interests, and some of them are diametrically opposed. How are we going to address this? Shouldn’t we at least establish platforms where we, as an international community, can discuss it? Surely not just governments should be involved—but, whether we like it or not, for the time being they will have an important role to play as well.

Looks Like We Will Muddle On

On the multi-stakeholders issue, the missing pieces are the individual people and the community interests. The internet has allowed communities to form, cooperate and act, often independently of national borders. Their influence in the internet is only increasing through the democratising effect it has around the world. These communities most certainly have opinions on governance issues and they should be included in any stakeholder forum.

Over the last few months we have seen internet governance initiatives taken by the government of Brazil, the EU and various technical groupings, all indicating that, in one way or another, we need to address the internet governance issues. However, given America’s almost fanatical approach to the issue it will be a real challenge to make that happen.

For as long as the world has no real clue about how to move forward and is unwilling to seriously unravel and address the issues we will simply muddle on and, while far from ideal, this is perhaps the best way forward, at least for the time being.

Related Links to Earlier Posts

What went wrong at WCIT
WCIT and the Tower of Babel
Is the WCIT indeed wicked?
The real work starts after WCIT12
Telcos cannot wind back the clock
Report on the eve of WCIT
WCIT off to a flying start
Industry structure at the core of WCIT problems
How can WCIT assist in connecting the rest of the world?
WCIT – so far so good – recap of week one
WCIT’s security issues
WCIT-12 disappoints, more work to be done

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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