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Five More Years! There Was No “Deal” and WSIS Resolved Nothing

The basic problem posed by WSIS was the role of national governments and national sovereignty in global Internet governance. That conflict remains completely unresolved by the WSIS document. The document’s thinking is still based on the fiction that there is a clear divide between “public policy” and the “day to day operation” of the Internet, and assumes that governments should be fully in control of the policy-setting function. Moreover, new organizational arrangements are being put into place which will carry on that debate for another 5 years, at least. The new Internet Governance Forum is a real victory for the civil society actors, but also fails to resolve the basic issue regarding the role of governments and sovereignty. Although called for and virtually created by civil society actors, the language authorizing its creation asks to involve all stakeholders “in their respective roles.” In other words, we still don’t know whether this Forum will be based on true peer-peer based interactions among governments, business and civil society, or whether it will reserve special policy making functions to governments.

ICANN did not walk away from this unscathed. ICANN will be strongly affected by the deliberations of the Forum and by the continuing debate over the role of governments. The document in para 70 calls for “the development of globally applicable principles on public policy issues associated with the coordination and management of critical internet resources.” This is clearly the concept advanced by the European Union. The document goes on to “call upon the organizations responsible for essential tasks associated with the Internet”—read, ICANN—to contribute to creating an environment the facilitates the development of public policy principles.”

I interpret that as meaning that GAC will be strengthened, especially when read in conjunction with the recent letter from Vint Cerf to the head of GAC inviting him to discuss the role of governments in ICANN. So after all the ballyhoo coming from the US about the horrors of China or Syria or Saudi Arabia “controlling the Internet” through the UN, ICANN’s GAC will continue to evolve into a microcosm of the UN within ICANN’s structure, one that will presumably include China and Syrai and Saudi Arabia, etc. The new Internet Governance Forum is also in a position to facilitate the development of these principles. That would be a positive development, because it is more open, more legitimate, and has less power than ICANN, which has monopoly, state-like control over Internet resources. The Forum recommendations will only have the force of persuasion.

The story is being misinterpreted by the US media. Yahoo reports that “US to retain control of domain names” But this is badly framed. As some of us have been saying all along, there was never a credible threat that ICANN would be dismantled or replaced. The idea of a “UN takeover” was a bogeyman advanced by a few partisan interests to divert attention away from the real issues. The real issues with ICANN were always two things: 1) the US unilateral oversight role, and 2) the role of governments, as opposed to a multi-stakeholder process, in setting the public policies that would guide ICANN’s decisions. Regarding the US unilateral control, although WSIS itself was unable to do anything about US unilateral control, no one involved really thought that it would. Para 68 however recognizes that “all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the Internet” - a direct slap at the US position. The real changes will come after WSIS. Regarding the role of governments in setting public policy, the WSIS document strengthens those who want governments to play a larger role in ICANN’s decisions.

On the whole, then the UN showed that it was unable to break out of the ongoing debate over Internet governance. The compromise reached was a simple matter of finding acceptable wording, even if it was self-contradictory or meaningless, and did not resolve the real political impasse.

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy

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Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Nov 18, 2005 2:33 AM

Well, I sort of expected this. What we have here is WSIS-II, or maybe “Son of WSIS”.

I expect at least one or two more rounds of this process before any kind of meaningful consensus gets hammered out.

Or was there some magic expectation that WSIS would come out with solutions, cut binding deals or do anything more than lay out a playing field that was reasonably level for all parties? 

Some governments are happy because the wording appears to address their concerns. The huge mass of “civil society” - ranging all the way from deeply committed people from either side of the political and privacy spectrum to vapid conference cruisers - is happy too - they’ve not been completely shut out as they feared they would be. 

And the operators appear to be reasonably happy at the preservation of status quo

Barring wording that seems to encourage more and more countries to set up NIRs that can - and possibly will - become de facto, or even de jure, IP address allocation monopolies in their countries .. China, Japan and Korea currently have long running NIRs now, and these are nominally under the RIR (in these cases, APNIC) framework.

And barring wording that seems to say, as you point out, that GAC is going to get slightly more oversight powers than before.  At least GAC has been familiar with the ICANN process for quite some time and they are much better suited to serve as a bridge between their governments and internet operators. So that is probably a bonus.

This is as close to status quo as I’d dare to hope.

Ram Mohan  –  Nov 24, 2005 10:43 AM

Governments are able to change how “their” Internet works for “their” peoples.

Evidence the introduction of .IDN (or IDN TLDs) in alternate root systems or other equivalent mechanisms in China, Iran, and other places.  These have happened with the active sponsorship of the ccTLDs and Governments of these countries.

Policy & execution cannot be divorced.  ICANN’s GNSO process to “set gTLD policy”, combined with a ccNSO process to “set ccTLD policy”, combined with a GAC to “provide advice” has led to a few dedicated players being able to direct much of the dialog.

Few countries, though, have a well thought out Internet plan especially on policy angles.

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Nov 24, 2005 11:07 AM

Few countries, though, have a well thought out Internet plan especially on policy angles

And as evidenced by some of those countries you quote, as well as many others .. that doesnt stop them from making policies and thinking out internet plans solely on the basis of how much political mileage / control of the internet industry in their country / censorship of their people etc they can achieve by it.

Quite often this leads to plans that tend to be divorced from reality.

However, I’m not going to start sounding like some of the more rabid WSIS and ICANN critics out there.  Governments do have a role. And they can play a wonderfully proactive role in the process.

IF they actually do something proactive instead of simply playing international politics and solely serving the interests of lobbyists from various commercial entities (incumbent telcos and local competition policy, for example)

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