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IGF Preparatory Meeting: A Score Draw in Geneva

Wednesday was the open public consultation preparing for the second meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, which will take place in Rio de Janaeiro on 12th-15th November. Although the inaugural Athens meeting was widely deemed a success, having largely stayed off the dread topics of wresting control of DNS from ICANN and IP addressing from the RIRs, the usual suspects were back demanding that these topics be added to the agenda.

Last year’s agenda was in four parts:

  • Access (meaning, how can the Developing World afford it?),
  • Diversity (which is mainly about adding non-Latin character sets to the DNS),
  • Openness (meaning freedom of speech - a nod to Civil Society stakeholders) and
  • Security (meaning, well, everything from selling firewalls to restricting freedom of speech, depending on who is talking at the time).

Much of the plenary consisted of worthy speeches, mainly from governments but also civil society, with relatively few contributions from industry.

However, alongside the plenary, were a great number of workshops, which brought participants together in discussion of much more specific subjects. Arising out of these workshops, almost spontaneously, was a new kind of multi-stakeholder group known by the new jargon term “Dynamic Coalition”. These Dynamic Coalitions are largely the continuation of the workshop on an ongoing basis: the new terminology is there to allow governments to participate without having to be in charge, something governments usually find difficult, especially in organisations that might make something that looks like a policy statement. Dynamic Coalitions are the real valuable fruit of the IGF, being a mechanism through which participants can work on issues co-operatively without devolving into an interminable intergovernmental political negotiation.

The group of countries that wants to greatly extend (inter)governmental control over the Internet, starting with critical technical resources, haven’t gone away. At the preparatory meeting in Geneva they led off the discussion en masse, sitting together and taking the floor first. One by one Brazil, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia set out the case for rolling the clock back three years and focussing not on what stakeholders can agree to work on together, but on issues where the Internet community, industry and major Western liberal democracies are fundamentally at odds with the aspirations of less liberal regimes to reinforce their “sovereign power” over the Internet. A casual observer would recognise these demands as being what they were saying during the World Summit on the Information Society, which ended up creating the Internet Governance Forum as an agreeable alternative to their desire to vest greater, decision-making power in a United Nations institution such as the ITU. But hardened cynics would think it naive to expect them to move on merely because they lost the argument.

In trying to reopen these old issues, China and its allies had two objectives:

  • to get the management of critical internet resources added to the agenda for Rio;and
  • to move the IGF from a open multi-stakeholder forum towards becoming a international policy-making body, with governments in the decisive role

The first was fairly easily achieved: the Regional Internet Registries did not speak at all, and speaking for ICANN Theresa Swinehart did not attempt to argue that such topics were outside the intended scope of the IGF, as it had previously maintained. Score one for China.

The second objective was always going to be harder. With an open membership, the Internet Governance Forum has no decision-making process. IGF Chair Nintin Desai has always maintained that it cannot even form such a process, there being no mechanism for approving its creation. As such the Internet Governance Forum is simply a forum, and cannot become a corporate body with its own decisions and policies.

This limited view of the IGF’s mandate is not shared by China and its allies, but the most most detailed attack upon it came from a civil society body called Eurolinc, an organisation founded to promote multilingualism whose website is exclusively in French. Eurolinc’s submission argues that the Tunis Agenda which established the IGF calls for the creation of a “Bureau”, which is United Nations jargon for a kind of Executive Board. Their two items [PDF] of closely argued legal analysis [PDF] depend on a tight reading of specific aspects of the Tunis Agenda, which may be a tactical mistake since everyone knows that the Tunis Agenda is full of language designed to support any possible interpretation - that’s the only way it got agreed in the first place.

Interestingly, Eurolinc’s call for the recognition of not just the three stakeholder groupings identified at WSIS (Government, Industry and Civil Society), but add a fourth, the “Internet Community”. However if they thought to win any support from old hands like the Internet Society they would have done well to avoid such apparently disparaging references to the “so-called Internet Community”. In any case ISOC, the RIRs and their friends would be unlikely to support a move which is designed to give leverage to governmental interests hostile to their role: indeed, the Civil Society Caucus felt moved to dissociate itself from this proposal from one of their own, as any Bureau would ultimately reduce their own franchise.

The Canadian delegation weighed in with the minimal legal fig-leaf needed to support the idea that any mention of a Bureau in the Tunis Agenda isn’t to be taken literally (it’s worded with a lower-case “b”, so it doesn’t mean Bureau in the UN-jargon sense), and then won the Chair’s redoubled appreciation with an actual offer of cash: $100,000 to assist participation from developing countries. From that point we heard a simple chorus of approval from industry, civil society, the Internet community and friendly national delegations in favour of the open, multistakeholder approach of the IGF, all drawn in contrast to the tortuous political negotiations of the WSIS and ITU-style practices. Such support made it easy for Chairman Desai to annouce that he had no intention of creating a UN-style Bureau, nor could the IGF ever become an intergovernmental negotiation. Score one for the Internet community.

In conclusion therefore, all sides could leave the day thinking they had achieved something by showing up, and were left with both positive and defensive reasons for needing to participate in the main meeting in Rio. Which probably means the real prize for the day was won by Chairman Nintin Desai; well, you don’t get to his position without showing some rather extraordinary diplomatic skills.

This post is a personal view of the IGF Preparatory Meeting from Malcolm Hutty, LINX’s Head of Public Affairs

By Malcolm Hutty, Head of Public Affairs

Filed Under


Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  May 27, 2007 2:33 AM

I was in GVA for the cluster of wsis events, though I only stayed for the security workshop and then the access workshop the day after that - the IGF consultation meeting was too late in the week.

There’s enough lack of consensus, and enough hardline ideologies on both sides (china & co v/s mueller and co for example)  for the IGF to remain what it currently is, a talk shop whose main advantage is that it brings together a whole variety of people that normally wouldn’t be meeting together at all. 

The major handicap is assorted communication gaps (strident civil rights activists who dont understand the internet, internet people who dont speak the civil rights jargon, NGOs with fixed views of what internet governance should look like, government people falling in one of those three spectra wrt language / background, while at the same time wanting to retain control)

What you have to watch for is how very easy it will be for governments to get more control THROUGH the existing system. 

For example, how many countries are setting up NIRs, and how many government agencies are then tasked to run those NIRs (in at least some cases, by taking the NIR over from a non government entity)?  RIR process or not, they become the de facto sole authority for allocating IP space in a particular country.  Oh, and the first thing a government official (in a country that doesn’t yet have an NIR) asked me when I met him was - “so, how do we go about setting up an NIR?”

Then there’s always GAC (which can certainly be beefed up to a remarkable extent).

Milton Mueller  –  Jun 1, 2007 3:13 PM

I think Suresh makes an important and valid point: “you have to watch for…how very easy it will be for governments to get more control THROUGH the existing system.” That is why Internet Governance Project and others (see for example Victor Mayer-Schonberger’s excellent piece on the “enhanced cooperation” proposal of the Europeans, have called for squarely facing up to ICANN-related problems both inside and outside the Forum, and for governments, with full engagement of business and civil society, to promote and negotiate liberal global principles and conventions that would clearly define—and enforce limits—on the governmental role. Many see that as paradoxical. They believe that we can deal with Leviathan by ignoring it in the hope it will go away, and by fighting a purely defensive battle to retain the status quo as of 1996. I disagree. Such a strategy is like running around sticking fingers in the holes of a leaky dike.

Hutty’s article fails to note that civil society, not just authoritarian governments, were keen to add “critical resources” to the IGF agenda. Frankly, I do not know what sense it makes to prevent an Internet Governance Forum from talking about the governance of internet identifier resources, especially as the IGF is non-binding, fully multi-stakeholder, and open. I believe that the most intelligent ideas are more likely to “win” in such an open environment than they are in others. If IGF cannot talk about it, who can? Attempts to ignore the issue only pushes the dialogue to the national and intergovernmental levels and insulates ICANN from accountability and effective review. And while ICANN may be preferable to the UN General Assembly, it is contradictory for Hutty to talk about resisting governmental control when ICANN is controlled by the US Government.

Parties who want to institutionalize the freedom and non-governmental nature of the Internet cannot sit back passively. They will have to engage with processes like IGF and go on the offensive, erecting new global rules and institutions. There is no other way.

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Jun 1, 2007 4:27 PM

There is a problem there.  You are approaching the IGF with an entirely divergent viewpoint to what the authoritarian governments you have cited are approaching it, wrt management of critical internet resources.  And the IGF has been structured without any decision making mandate.  Organizing panels there wont help get contentious decisions made. 

It is a great place to network, and make common cause, with other stakeholders who you may not find together in the same room at any other conference.  [Usual ICANN suspects, usual netops suspects, usual cybersecurity / spam conf suspects, usual ICT and development suspects .. all in the same hotel]

I’m all for maintaining status quo on IP addressing (leaving the RIR model in place) -  but there’s a strong move from several countries towards wanting to become responsible for allocating their own IP addresses. 

Some of this is driven by politics, and in some cases, probably by the incumbent / monopoly telco in the country not being able to properly manage / request IP addresses so that they frequently run short, and are then unable to justify a fresh allocation from the RIR.. whereupon the idea of being “responsible” for IP addressing in their own country - by proxy of course, their good friends in the country’s regulator, who try very hard to tilt the playing field in favor of the incumbent telco against privately owned ISPs, will take care of that for them. 

Quite a few incumbent telcos in various countries own most of the copper on the ground, and sell to direct customers far cheaper than they sell to competing ISPs.  Now, if they are, effectively, handed control of all the IP addresses in that country, either through a policy of country level allocation of IPs, or by setting up an NIR and then quietly passing a law that makes the NIR an one stop shop for acquiring IP addresses ..

A very similar set of arguments will apply re domain name addressing, ccTLD management etc.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the canard about “only 13 root servers so that developing countries dont have root servers of their own” .. quite often knowing but not acknowledging the presence of anycast.

Keep that in mind.  You will find that countries (democracies as such) that dont want to suppress free speech will make common cause with countries that are more focused on free speech because of that motive.

It is not going to be a question of ethics, network / DNS operational considerations, or even utopian ideas of how the Internet should be governed.  It is going to be politics, combined with economics, that is going to be the main consideration in the end.

Which is where more responsible countries with a well developed democracy, a free market economy and sane regulators come into the picture (Canada’s intervention that Malcolm described is a good example)

Even the US - DOC has maintained a largely hands off policy on ICANN (note that “largely”, definitely e&oe the Bush administration, which has let neocon ideology and lobbying prevail over a previous consensus on far more serious things than .xxx)

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