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ICANN, WSIS and the Making of a Global Civil Society - Part III

For a book project I decided to extend my interview with Milton Mueller from November 2003 (Part I | Part II). Exclusively for CircleID readers, here’s part III that deals with WSIS, WGIG, US-American bias and the Internet Governance Project.

GL: Ever since the first World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, held in December 2003, your interest in the process aspect of such a world summit has grown. Has it?

MM: It is true that I have become more deeply engaged in the WSIS civil society process, and especially the Internet Governance caucus of WSIS civil society. This happened because Internet governance moved to the center of the WSIS stage after the 2003 summit. I and others felt that the WSIS-CS Internet governance caucus was too much of a small clique and too timid in developing policy positions. Early on, it tended to be dominated by people who wanted to shield ICANN from WSIS. So with my colleagues Hans Klein, John Mathiason, Derrick Cogburn and Marc Holitscher, the Internet Governance Project was formed. Its purpose was and is to provide policy analysis capacity to WSIS civil society on Internet governance issues.

Many civil society actors who became involved in the first phase of WSIS have had a great deal of trouble relating to the key issues of the second phase, especially internet governance. In the first phase, civil society dealt with very broad social norms around such issues as “digital divide,” gender, communication rights and so on. Internet governance, on the other hand, is a very specific institutional and political struggle that requires knowledge of how policy issues are related to technical systems.

One of the most interesting issues in the second phase was the process used by the Internet governance caucus to recommend names to the UN Secretary-General regarding who would represent civil society on the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG). In this case, civil society’s organic structures (caucuses and working groups) interacted with the official UN structure not just in a consultative or advocacy role. It had to produce a real decision—a list of recommended names—and of course that decision was highly political, as the composition of the WGIG would affect its output. Many people wanted to be on the WGIG and not all of them could be, so competition for nominations was keen.

The process illustrated both the strengths and the weaknesses of civil society engagement with international institutions. On the strong side, the leaders of the internet governance caucus developed and cultivated a very close relationship with Markus Kummer, the Swiss diplomat who served as the secretariat of the WGIG. In return, Kummer didn’t do anything with input from other civil society entities and privileged the recommendations of the Internet governance caucus. To everyone’s amazement, virtually all of the names forwarded by the caucus were placed on the Working Group (many of us had assumed that only a few names would be selected from any list we developed). Most importantly, the people selected by the caucus have proved to be among the most informed and productive performers on the working group. I am referring to people like Karen Banks, Carlos Afonso, Wolfgang Kleinwachter, William Drake, Avri Doria and Raul Echeberria, to name a few of the most active ones. They also have done a fairly good job of consulting with other members of civil society in formulating positions. An active dialogue has been maintained on the caucus list regarding policy positions. The Internet Governance Project has contributed significantly to the advancement of that dialogue but so has the expertise of the other parties.

As a weakness, the process revealed WSIS civil society’s lack of institutional capacity; by which I mean its inability to develop and follow an objective process, and its reliance on close-knit groups of friends rather than objective procedures to make decisions. The co-coordinators of the Internet governance caucus failed to define a nomination procedure until the last minute, and ultimately the process they used was so improvised and arbitrary that hard feelings and conflict were created. Indeed, they might have failed to come up with a procedure altogether had not their hand been forced by actions taken by ICANN’s Noncommercial Users Constituency (NCUC). NCUC, which has a structure of elected officers, instituted its own process of nominating civil society people to the WGIG. Because of the existence of a charter and formally nominated and legitimated officers, this process went very smoothly. This seems to have prompted the caucus leaders to institute, finally, a selection/nomination procedure. But the procedure the caucus proposed was vague, rushed, and required improvisation during the crucial end game. Some parties, notably the free software groups, felt they had not been treated fairly. The Latin American caucus split over the selection process, too, although this may have happened regardless of the procedure used.

The point here is in some sense an obvious one, but one that many civil society actors still seem unwilling to face and accept: civil society engagement in policy making processes of global governance requires that consequential decisions be made by “civil society” as a collectivity. Unless there are procedures and rules for organizing “civil society,” it will be incapable of responding to those requirements without huge upheavals and struggles among itself. But once it “bureaucratizes” itself by creating those structures, is it still “civil society?”

GL: Do you still feel that you have a deeply US-American viewpoint on Internet governance or is it politically not correct to ask about one’s own cultural bias? Obviously it is hard for everyone to jump over one’s own shadow.

MM: Of course my radically liberal approach to free expression and other civil liberties, my anti-statism and anti-militarism and my belief in economic freedom is deeply rooted in Anglo-American political traditions, going back to Locke and Jefferson. But I have been exposed to non-American perspectives for many, many years. From 1989 I lived in Hong Kong and China and studied the policy environments there. I know about Maoism and have observed first-hand the effects of British colonialism on economics and policy. I’ve done international comparative studies of telecommunications policies since the early 1990s. I confess a visceral dislike of ponderous, clubby European notions of corporatism and “co-regulation,” but also feel increasingly alienated from the position of the US government and US business interests, who have abandoned the ideals the country claims to have been founded on. And I’ve recognized for years the difficulty many Americans have viewing Internet issues from a standpoint that transcends their own national perspective, because it is just a pale reflection of the same trouble they have in foreign policy. But hey, ordinary Europeans are probably as nationalistic as ordinary Americans. Most Geneva-based international organizations are Eurocentric in outlook. Asians are more nationalistic than Europeans and Americans.

GL: The Internet Governance debate seems not to have transcended beyond stereotypes like ‘Californian neo-liberal corporates defending the medium of the free West against power-hungry Chinese communist party censors and crusty UN burocrats.’ How could we move on from these clich?s?

MM: Don’t forget: there are censors, inside and outside China, who would like to control the Internet. And the UN bureaucracy is annoying and plodding. That being said, these observations have very little relevance to the Internet governance debate, because the UN is in no position to control anything.

One good result of the WGIG process is that the involved international community has already moved beyond those cliches. No one is proposing that the UN control the Internet. There is growing consensus that control of the DNS root needs to be internationalized. It’s hypocritical to talk about how terrible governments are when one government, the most powerful one in the world by any measure, holds unilateral power over one aspect of the Internet. Also, people have learned that just because ICANN is private does not means that it is a “free market, liberal” solution. ICANN is a regulatory agency with centralized control of key aspects of the Internet. And the work of NCUC on privacy and the Whois database is beginning to make it clearer and clearer that it is the US government and US-based IPR interests that want to exploit their control of current Internet governance arrangements for surveillance and regulation. So the “government control” rhetoric can be and is being turned against them.

We will debate these clich?s again, however, during the next stage, when or if the WGIG proposes something useful and WSIS adopts it. The debate will move into a broader public and people who want to prevent change will raise those old arguments again. That renewed debate is why it is important that the WGIG propose something more substantive than the creation of some poorly-defined new discussion forum. Creating a new bureaucracy will be hard to sell to a broader public; it will look like just expanding the UN bureaucracy to cater to a bunch of would-be regulators. There is already an alphabet soup of UN agencies with authority over different parts of the Internet and communications, and the solution is to create another one?

GL: Recently, as a part of the Internet Governance Project, you have launched the surprising idea that ICANN and ITU should compete with each other. You wrote: “People in the US Internet community love to beat up on the ITU, and I am not a big fan of it as an organization myself. The fact remains, however, that a lot of countries, especially developing ones, see it as a more legitimate forum for policy making and administration. So if ICANN and ITU represent two radically different governance regimes, why not let them compete with each other?” So instead of dialogue and compromise, which are vital parts of the dominant ‘multistakeholder’ approach, you suggest the opposite: competition. Would this go through a tender system, for instance?

MM: Actually, ICANN-ITU “competition” would constitute an important form of compromise. What you have now is a “winner take all” power struggle between the intergovernmental system of ITU and the private sector-led system of ICANN. We’d like to see that destructive power struggle end. A workable international regime might resolve this conflict by permitting both to co-exist and giving the key actors a choice among the two. One might be able to retain the best of both worlds.

Anyway, we need to talk about the whole proposal, not just the ITU - ICANN competition idea. We proposed reinstating democratic elections for ICANN’s Board. To our surprise, we learned that many official representatives of civil society in the Internet governance caucus were unwilling to support that. But I think our proposal stiffened their spine a bit and we are now seeing support consolidate. We also proposed reforms in ICANN’s constituency structure and the abolition of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

Regarding your reference to “multistakeholderism,” I am starting the hate the word. As a catch word it serves as a Rorschach blob - everyone can see whatever they want in it. The word papers over the really difficult questions about institutional arrangements, power and rights. The point is not “stakeholders” representation per se. The point is individual rights and democratic procedure. Sometimes—many times, in fact—those bigger causes are advanced by permitting civil society to participate more fully in institutions that were once restricted to governments. But let’s not fetishize those simple advances. Let’s use them to institutionalize greater advances in global governance that facilitate freedom.

Some of the leaders of civil society in the WGIG would like for the final outcome of WGIG to be the creation of a new international organization which will serve as a “multistakeholder forum.” My colleagues in the Internet Governance Project, in contrast, are advocating an international framework convention as the best next step. This would require governments to negotiate a set of globally agreed principles and norms regarding the governance of the Internet. This would turn the momentum of WSIS/WGIG into a lasting, influential process of institutional change at the international level.

Both ideas have strengths and weaknesses. A new discussion forum would facilitate continued participation by civil society groups, but might become irrelevant unless it has real power, which probably isn’t possible due to rivalries with existing international organizations and their constituencies. A framework convention might be too government-centric, (although the process can be designed to include civil society) and some have argued that the parties are not ready for that level of negotiation.

Related Links:
- Milton Mueller’s homepage
- His global civil society research
- ICANNWatch
- The Internet Governance Project

Filed Under


joe sims  –  Jun 5, 2005 6:28 PM

With one important exception, this and the earlier interviews with Milton show a real understanding of some of the dynamics underlying all the various conflicts that seem to be constantly swirling around the DNS (and more broadly the Internet), now that the entire world has discovered that it is a really important tool.  The one blind spot Milton has is on the appropriateness of direct democracy as a governing mechanism in ICANN. While (in the earlier interviews)Milton accepted and even explained why democracy is frequently not practical in the early development of civil society organizations and structures, he continues to assert that the absence of that democracy is the major flaw of the current ICANN process and structure. The facts are that the ICANN experiment in elections was a disaster, demonstrating clearly the enormous practical problems in trying to run a global online electoral process involving a subject that was not only technically challenging but critically dependent upon both the perception and reality of stable operations for its value.  These are complicated problems that may require less than conceptually perfect solutions to achieve practical results, at least in the short run.  Milton seems to understand this point about global civil society organization, but somehow fails to apply that same reasoning to DNS governance structures, even while noting that many of his civil society colleagues do get the point.  Applying the same perceptive ability to this issue as he has to other Internet governance issues would likely drive him to a different conclusion.

Gary Osbourne  –  Jun 7, 2005 5:14 PM

Joe Sims’ description of the ICANN experiment in direct democracy as a ‘disaster’ requires a longer look. First, ICANN (of which Joe Sims has been an integral part since before the beginning, despite not being staff, appointed or elected) has never explained why it considers the election a ‘disaster’. Were that the case, why not convene a working group and address the supposed problems? At least in North America and Europe (I have no knowledge of the other regions) the electorate spoke clearly and the results were consistent with what one would expect. It can hardly be called a disaster when the NA and European reps each have more technical clue than most of the rest of the Board and most of the staff put together. Or that with the electorate’s collective wisdom such barbarians at the gates as the owner of pr0n site whitehouse.com couldn’t even generate sufficient nominations to get on the ballot. Perhaps the fact that the NA and European reps were largely critical of ICANN is what ICANN considers a disaster, but that is not a failure of direct democracy.

Second, if the election was a ‘disaster’ it was ICANN which oversaw the process, therefore who should bear the responsibility? The most we have heard out of ICANN was that there was some concern as to the security of the process. Let us not forget that ICANN, late in the process and in secret, contracted long time apologist and now ICANN staffer Kent Crispin (yeah, I bet that went out to tender) to deal with security issues. As Kent Crispin was, and presumably is, well known as an ardent and vocal opponent of direct elections, this was akin to having Jeb Bush decide between GW Bush and Al Gore. Again, this was hardly a failure of direct democracy.

Joe Sims, lawyer for Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue, who have made probably into the $millions in legal fees from ICANN, spins this as some sort of choice between direct democracy and indirect democracy but that is a false dichotomy. In ICANN’s case, as the above hijinks and now countless more make clear, it is between direct democracy and anti-democracy. At every step and in every way, those attempting to civilly and indirectly participate in ICANN have been shut out, lied to, ignored, denigrated, co-opted, etc. so that ICANN can remain a registry/registrar price fixing cartel and become an overseer of internet content.

By contrast I, a simple computer programmer and terminally bemused ICANNWatcher, have been directly approached by the ITU, total strangers to me, asking me to expand on various DNS related subjects I have written about online. That is, they actively sought my direct input rather than actively fought against even indirect input. I have also been able to, and have on more than one occasion, had my say heard by my government which can then pass it on to the ITU and if I don’t think they’re hearing me I have redress to assert both my direct and indirect democratic rights. The difference is coming ever closer to black and white.

Make no mistake, with ICANN at best we have a monarchy, the divine right of Kings of industry, and Joe Sims, the shadowy backroom dealmaker and power behind the throne is telling us they have ripped up the Magna Carta as it was a disaster. -g

joe sims  –  Jun 7, 2005 5:31 PM

It’s always a little depressing to see people assume that I had so much influence on this process, when the results have been, shall we say, less than steller.  In any event, Gary Osbourne must have missed the working group that was established under the leadership of Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, in 2001 to study these issues.  Its final report can be found at http://atlargestudy.org/final_report.shtml While this group’s recommendations were not all accepted by the ICANN community, it did represent an important addition to the debate that eventually culminated in the reform process of 2002 and the ICANN structure, including the Nominating Committee that selects a majority of the members of ICANN’s Board, that exists today.

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Jun 8, 2005 7:45 AM

on this topic, here’s an interesting UNDP/APDIP paper on i-governance.. it covers most of the issues that the wgig has raised (root server admin, IP allocation etc) in what I feel is a sensible manner.


This is an interesting paper, I’d say - and it has sound and sensible suggestions.

Strongly recommended reading.


> **Please disseminate widely**
> **Apologies for cross-postings**
> ===================================================
> UNDP Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (UNDP-APDIP)
> Releases ORDIG Policy Brief and Input Paper on Internet Governance
> 7 June 2005
> Voices from Asia-Pacific: Internet Governance Priorities and Recommendations
> ===================================================
> After almost ten months of research and activities, UNDP-APDIP’s Open
> Regional Dialogue on Internet Governance (ORDIG*) has produced a
> two-part report entitled, “Voices from Asia-Pacific: Internet Governance
> Priorities and Recommendations” - consisting of 1) the ORDIG Policy
> Brief and Executive Summary, and 2) the ORDIG Input Paper for the UN
> Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) and the World Summit on the
> Information Society (WSIS).
> These documents stem from months of consultations involving stakeholder
> groups from the public and private sectors, as well as civil society.
> ORDIG consulted over 3,000 stakeholders through sub-regional meetings,
> jointly organized with UNESCAP and others; a region-wide online forum
> that allowed for open and candid discussions on the issues; and a
> region-wide, multi-lingual, issues-based online survey that looked at
> the Internet governance priorities of the region.
> The resulting two reports are the synthesis, consolidation, and reading
> of the voices from the Asia-Pacific region.  They outline the principles
> and dimensions that make up the framework for building recommendations,
> which are provided in the documents at two levels - general and specific
> recommendations.
> Issues and recommendations covered in the Infrastructure dimension are
> access costs, VOIP, and wireless networks.  Issues and recommendations
> covered in the Logical dimension are DNS management, IP address
> management, and technical standards.  Issues covered in the Content
> dimension are content pollution (spam, viruses, spyware, etc.) and
> cybercrime.  Issues covered in the Social/Developmental dimension are
> culture diversity and participation.
> The “Voices from Asia-Pacific: Internet Governance Priorities and
> Recommendations” documents were shared with and endorsed by delegates at
> the High Level Asia-Pacific Conference for the World Summit on the
> Information Society, in Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran (31 May-2 June
> 2005).
> Furthermore, these reports will be provided to the WGIG at their
> upcoming Fourth Meeting (14-17 June 2005), as the Asia-Pacific input for
> the Working Group’s deliberation.
> For all documents, please go to:
> ORDIG Policy Brief
> http://igov.apdip.net/ORDIG_Policy_Brief.pdf
> ORDIG Input Paper
> http://igov.apdip.net/ORDIG_Paper.pdf
> ORDIG Survey Report
> http://igov.apdip.net/ORDIG.Survey.Report.pdf
> ORDIG Forum Summary
> http://igov.apdip.net/undp-apdip%20forum%20summary.pdf
> Contact:
> Phet Sayo, UNDP-APDIP Programme Specialist, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
> =======================
> * ORDIG is an initiative of UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Development Information
> Programme (UNDP-APDIP), in collaboration with the United Nations
> Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), and
> the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC).  It was carried out
> with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research
> Centre, Ottawa, Canada.

Gary Osbourne  –  Jun 8, 2005 7:00 PM

In answer to Joe Sims second post, I did not miss the Carl Bildt working group, which I submit wouldn’t have been created were it not for pressure from some within the USG including the Small Business Administration. When I spoke of a working group I meant one to analyse and perhaps come up with fixes for the supposed election ‘disaster’, not one with a broadranging mandate which would much further emasculate the great unwashed. Regardless, it was the ICANN BoD which created that committee, the committee gave at least equal weight to the input of ICANN’s power elite, the registries, registrars, IP interests, etc. BTW, why is it that general (non-)members like myself on the other hand, had and have no say in their relative representativeness. Hardly seems fair. The BoD then took Bildt’s already tame recommendations and pretty much gutted them.

I don’t consider the resultant At Large Advisory Committee in any way representative of my interests unless it happens by accident. Nor apparently do many others as there are still no bottom up North American representatives (leaving the BoD to pick them), there are only two requests, one of which is representative of IP interests (long pending approval or denial, and why should supposed bottom up groups have to request anything anyway?). Meanwhile, many of those ALAC members who have been selected for various mid-level ICANN roles had or have a personal financial interest in various registries, potential registries, and/or registrars, putting them at the very least in a conflict of interest situation (which is not usually disclosed). thus any hope of a truly independent counter voice for the end user has also been co-opted. I will grant Joe Sims that in addition to the other methods I listed which are used to keep out general participation I should have added ‘tokenism’.

Regarding Joe Sims self-confessed less than stellar performance with ICANN, I can only say I look forward to him publicizing what official role he has ever held in ICANN, and assuming there was/is such, just how he got there. After all, ICANN is open and transparent, right? Taking him at his word, I can only be thankful he wasn’t more successful in his endeavors. -g

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