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Open Ends: Civil Society and Internet Governance - Part II

This is the second part of a three-part series interview by Geert Lovink with Jeanette Hofmann, policy expert from Germany, where she talks about her experiences as a member of the ICANN’s Nominating Committee and her current involvement as a civil society member of the German delegation for the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS). Click to read Part I of this interview.

GL: So much in the current debates over global governance seems to go back to the issue what place governments and individual nation states have within global governance. What has been your ICANN experience? Ideally, what would be the place of the state? Do you believe in a federal structure? Should, for instance, bigger countries, in terms of its population, have a great say?

JH: The role of governments touches upon two contested issues, national sovereignty and transnational democracy. Both issues have evoked fierce debate at the preparatory conferences of the World Summit on Information Society. Developing countries in particular have pointed out that the spread of the Internet affects matters of national sovereignty. An international regime would enable more political control over both infrastructure development and data traffic. This is why many developing countries would like to see an UN body such as the ITU assume a more responsible function in the area of Internet management.

Among the driving forces in this process are new communication services. The revenues of national telecommunication monopolies are threatened by the advent of Internet telephony. In addition, the digital divide, problems such as spam, worms and viruses are mentioned as reasons for an intergovernmental approach to Internet regulation. Interestingly enough, the debate on Internet regulation was initiated in the context of WSIS, not of ICANN. ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee used to predominantly reflect the world views of OECD countries, not those from the south.

The second issue, transnational democracy, has been a matter of extended debate in the academic world. One of the central questions is whether democratic procedures, which were once designed for territorial nation states, can be adapted for transnational policy fields. According to the skeptics in this field, democracy doesn’t work outside of the nation state. Democracy, from the skeptics’ point of view, is a national institution, and the transnational sphere fails to meet the basic requirements for it to work. Foremost among these requirements are a common language as foundation for a public sphere, solidarity among the people as a condition for “redistributional policies”, and a clearly defined constituency as a precondition for majority ruling. Since none of these criteria are met outside of the nation state, democratic world politics are but a utopian idea.

The advocates of a democratizing world politics argue, however, that democracy should not be treated as a static concept but rather as a contested, open-ended process. Instead of referring to and hiding behind established democratic routines we should keep in mind the huge transformations the original concept of democracy has undergone since its inception. Originally designed for Greek city states, democratic principles were thoroughly rethought in order to apply them in differing ways to the emerging territorial states. So, why should it not be possible to revise democratic principles once again in order to adjust them to transnational settings? 

Some preliminary suggestions have been floated in recent years. Among them is the concept of deliberative democracy, which proposes to replace majority ruling by persuasion, consensus and compromise. Since it is impossible to establish majorities beyond the nation state, it is necessary to use other means for legitimate decision making. The concept of deliberative democracy suggests strengthening discursive capacities such as reasoning and negotiation, which are already supposed to play a major role in political everyday life. Some observers expect that new schemes of deliberative democracy might evolve along the lines of given industries and policy fields rather than regional divisions. The transnational public sphere would thus be structured primarily around problems, industries and organizations. Experience with ICANN shows, however, that such models can only work within a framework of minority protection and additional democratic achievements as layed out in the constitutions of nation states.

While the nation state attaches rights of participation to citizenship, the post-national world would grant those rights to people who choose to participate in certain policy fields. Transnational policy fields would be populated in a tripartite manner by government, industry and civil society. Governments would thus be an important stakeholder among other important stakeholders. Governments do already cooperate with the private sector in many policy fields. It is now about time these public private partnerships get extended so that also civil society interests are taken adequately into account.

No matter, what such policy arrangements would ultimately look like, a crucial point seems to be how the exercise of power in the transnational sphere can be restricted and its abuse prevented. What we need, it seems, is a Montesquieu for information society who devises a modern model of power division taking into consideration the leverage of digital technology. Such a model of power division would limit and disperse the amount of control enabled by both the Internet’s architecture and the structure of the Internet’s industry.

GL: In the case of the Internet, the status of the US government is obviously a special case. One can think of a historical claim, but also in general about the sheer size of its economic, military and political power. How do you look at this?

JH: To be sure, the current unilateral management of the DNS root is unacceptable on principle grounds. In the long run, policy authority over the root, the address and the name space must be divided among several bodies each of which should be composed of multiple stakeholders consisting of civil society, industry and governments. On practical grounds it could be argued though that the present situation constitutes a pretty stable and more or less acceptable arrangement. In my view, the US government’s power over the Internet has been to a large extent a theoretical concern. The US government would never dare to disable a major country code Top Level Domain such as .fr, .jp or .de. Because the US government’s control over the DNS root has been strongly criticized and closely monitored by many stakeholders, it can be assumed that the DOC makes rather careful use of its power over the root. If I am right, it is quite a challenge to devise policy authorities that are not only structured in legitimate ways but can also be trusted to act with the same caution as the USG does today. Within civil society the idea of an intergovernmental root convention has been aired. Such a convention would basically establish a national right to an entry of the respective ccTLD in the root server file. No single government would have the authority any longer to decide single handedly over the existence of Top Level Domains on the Internet.

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The Famous Brett Watson  –  Aug 17, 2004 3:00 AM

“In my view, the US government’s power over the Internet has been to a large extent a theoretical concern.”

Largely theoretical, yes. But let us not forget the practical concern known as “SiteFinder”. Regardless of its intrinsic merits or evils, it was foisted upon the Internet at large in a manner contemptuous of the vast majority of stakeholders. If root-level DNS management were even slightly representative of the will of the stakeholders, I think VeriSign would have been summarily banned from DNS management shortly after making the change.

I’m not suggesting that VeriSign is the subject of favouritism from the US government (although there may be something in that theory); I simply wish to suggest that there is a serious disconnect between the will of the major stakeholders and the actions of those in control. If this alleged disconnect exists because US contract law makes it so, or some similar institutionally unavoidable reason, then the US government’s power over the DNS is an immensely practical concern. If it exists solely because those in control lack the courage to represent the will of the stakeholders, then the US government ought to fix that before the rest of the world judges their failure to do so a systematic flaw.

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