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From ICANN57 Hyderabad to the 3rd WIC Wuzhen Summit: A Moment of Consensus on Internet Governance

Two events that happened last month deserve an additional note. One is the ICANN57 conference held in Hyderabad on November 3-9. The other is the 3rd World Internet Conference Wuzhen Summit held in Zhejiang Province on November 16-18.

Though being completely overwhelmed by the result of President election in the United States, both events mark the victory of non-state actors and serve as good news for the community.

ICANN57 as the first post-transition meeting celebrated an exit from U.S. government. The removal of this unique role not only encouraged conference participation but also significantly promoted global understanding of ICANN.

While each country has its own version of misunderstanding about ICANN, the major Chinese misunderstanding had centered on the word privatization. ICANN bylaws state clearly that the non-profit public-benefit corporation is rooted in private sector and private sector refers to “business stakeholders, civil society, the technical community, academia, and end users”. Very few Chinese readers, however, read the bylaws.

Chinese public heavily relied on the media to learn about ICANN and its model of governance. Against this context, the word privatization caused most disputes: it was misunderstood as commercialization. A hearing of U.S. House of Representatives on March 17, for example, was entitled “Privatizing the IANA”.

It is not surprising therefore that quite some academic figures in China said that the transition of stewardship was not the internationalization of ICANN, but commercialization. One Fudan University Professor went to such an extreme as to say that the transition was a setback.

But that is no longer the case after the ICANN57. The confusion period lasted very shortly and was replaced by very positive remarks from various stakeholders. Most know that privatization does not mean commercialization or industrialization, but bringing ICANN under non-state actors while taking into account advice of governments.

In the same way that the privatization of IANA is not real privatization, the multilateralism of WIC Wuzhen Summit is not real multilateralism, and it has never been.

A major misunderstanding about WIC Wuzhen Summit has been that it promotes solely multilateralism and cyber sovereignty. That is only half true.

The Wuzhen Summit has been an evolutionary process. The 2014 summit expressed China’s dissatisfaction about the Snowden Leaks. The 2015 summit used a convenient and conventional tool, cyber sovereignty, for self-defense. The 2016 summit, however, was more committed to building consensus and appealing to global commons, which is closer to ICANN’s value of being consensus-driven and One World, One Internet.

It is reasonable to argue that the 3rd Wuzhen Summit made a multistakeholder turn. That is not real multistakeholder, of course, but it is an awareness and conception. From the very beginning, the Wuzhen Summit has had robust multistakeholder participation. The 3rd summit was no exception. Yet the 3rd summit moved further and made some constructive linguistic compromise, using the words—multi-players, multi-parties, or multi-actors—to show support of the multistakeholder model.

This had not been a smooth process. The confusion about China’s position over global Internet governance in general and IANA transition matters, in particular, started from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech in Brazil on July 17, 2014, in which he spoke of three principles China upheld: multilateral, democratic, and transparent.

These three words were apparently borrowed from Paragraph 29 of Tunis Agenda for the Information Society in WSIS 2005. It was inserted into President Xi’s speech by a lower bureaucrat either from China’s Foreign Ministry or from the Ministry of Industrialization & Information Technology.

That frustrated the support of the multistakeholder model for some time in China. The 2016 Wuzhen Summit, however, lifted, in a way, the second principle, being democratic, as the priority, implying that, multilateral or multistakeholder, as long as it serves the democratization of global Internet governance, it is a good model.

In this sense, exemplified by interpretations of the transition of IANA functions at ICANN57 and the multistakeholder/global commons turn of the 3rd WIC Wuzhen Summit, the journey from ICANN57 Hyderabad to the 3rd WIC Wuzhen Summit marks a moment of consensus on Internet governance.

The two conferences come closer. It reveals more independence of the Internet governance issue from high politics. It proves that the global dialogue on Internet governance can avoid being kidnapped by the geopolitical tensions and cybersecurity exaggerations.

Yet, the sad truth is that, beyond the transition of IANA functions and multistakeholder turn of WIC Wuzhen Summit, the sovereignty-minded personalities like Senator Ted Cruz and the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and their counterparts in China and perhaps across the world have gained new momentum. This has already become evident in the passing of the Cybersecurity Law in China and the way U.S. President-elect Trump is putting together his administration.

The real battle over the model of Internet governance is now happening in a transnational way. The multistakeholder model is supported by transnational information technology companies, many grassroots entities and a considerable number of governments. The traditional model preferring larger degree of isolation, fragmentation, and confrontation is favored by those who either cling to traditional/conservative thinking, or can profit from the new Cold War mentality in the cyberspace, or, in a more understandable way, worry about becoming victims of the cyber attacks due to the lack of capabilities to discern and defend.

By Peixi (Patrick) Xu, Professor, Communication University of China

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