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Internet Governance: There Are No Masterplans

Please pardon me if I start this story by telling about an incident that happened to me at the Madrid airport while flying to the ICANN meetings in Rio.

It was about midnight when, after flying in from Turin, my hometown, I had to go through the passport control to reach my gate for the flight to Rio. The war between the US/UK and Iraq had started two days before, and even if the Spanish government was among its supporters, security checks were apparently proceeding as usual. Passport controls inside the EU for EU citizens usually take a few seconds, and the line ahead of me was proceeding quickly.

But when my turn came, the policeman started to stare at my face, then at my photo, then at my face, and then claimed that my passport was “probably fake.” Now, I’ve been using that passport all around the world for almost three years now, and I can tell you that it’s not fake, nor is it any different from any other Italian passport. But if you have had a chance to spot me at ICANN meetings, you might have noticed that I have a thick beard and some other Arab-looking features in my face. Even if I don’t have any known Arab ancestors, this is hardly surprising and is true for a good share of southern Europeans—for millenniums the Mediterranean sea has been more like a marketplace than a barrier. But evidently my appearance was the reason I had to be controlled.

So he called a colleague and they started to examine my passport with magnifying lenses. I was asked to provide my ID card, and it was thoroughly examined too. Then the two called over two other policemen, obviously armed, who took me aside and started to ask me who I was and where I was going, and why I had four US immigration stamps on my passport, and why I had been in the US in the past. I had to show six or seven documents—my driver’s license, my credit card, my ATM card, even my frequent flyer cards and gym club card. I had to answer trivia questions such as where and when my parents had been born, and whether I had any non-Italian relatives. After 20 minutes of intense questioning in full view of everyone in the vicinity, I was finally let into the gates.

I was a little shocked and embarrassed, but not too upset by this incident—after all, it was just an attempt to provide tighter wartime security for my flight, or at least to appear to do so. But a nagging feeling that I hadn’t been randomly singled out triggered in my mind a connection with many other similar tales I have heard in recent months. It’s not just that, in the name of preventing terrorism (and other crimes, such as pedophilia or online piracy), our personal liberties are being increasingly restricted and controlled; it’s also that they are being increasingly restricted and controlled in an irrational and unaccountable way, chasing after ghosts and myths rather than true dangers—or worse, using the trend to push measures that reduce the variety of information sources, stifle market competition and consumers’ rights, and defend the interests of some lobbies against those of the global community.

So there is a hidden conflict between those who want a strictly controlled world, uniform in values, customs and socio-political models, and those who push for a diverse and varied global society, in which people cooperate on a peer-to-peer basis. The Internet was (unconsciously) born as the pioneer of this latter approach, and has thus become a central battlefield for this conflict.

The Internet can be the ultimate instrument of personal freedom, or the ultimate instrument of centralized control. But due to its nature and to the increasing global interdependence of our societies, the decision as to whether it will follow the former path or the latter is not to be taken by a single entity in a single place. Rather, it will be the result of a lot of small, largely unnoticed decisions made and steps taken by many entities in many places. This is dangerous because, while decisions taken in traditional central places of power are subject to forms of accountability to the general public, through elections and press coverage, hidden distributed decisions do not have these kinds of checks and balances.

This is why all of us who participate in ICANN have to realize that, notwithstanding its limited mission, each small step it takes is a small step in one of two directions—toward more freedom or less freedom, more competition or less competition, more diversity or less diversity. In most of our daytime activities, we may even neglect this, defending the interests of our stakeholders or employers, fighting for them; and certainly in the past there has sometimes been too much discussion about abstract principles, rather than work on practical solutions to existing problems.

But we need to be aware that there is not a masterplan for the future of the Internet. It will be the sum of many small decisions, some by us, some by others, that will shape it. This is why the ICANN community, while remaining focused on practical issues, still needs to share reciprocal trust, common values and common long-term goals. The Internet has created the possibility of more wealth, more freedom, more peace and friendship for the world, and we all need to take our small practical steps to make this possibility real.

This is something we should never forget.

By Vittorio Bertola, ICANN At Large Advisory Committee, Chairman

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