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WSIS: What Is It ‘Really’ All About?

Until a few weeks ago, almost everyone in the Internet governance circus seemed to ignore the very existence of WSIS. After it popped up on international newspapers, however, things have been changing; and suddenly, I have started noticing plenty of negative reactions, on the lines of “we don’t need WSIS, we don’t need the UN, we don’t need governments, we don’t need internationalization - just go away from our network”. However, I often find that these reactions are based on fundamental misunderstandings of the issues at stake; so please let me offer a different perspective.

First of all, WSIS is an eminently political process, talking about political problems. The issue here is not how to make the Internet work best - forget about that. The issue mostly is how to redistribute power and control about what is done with the Internet and how, without breaking its technical functionality too much.

To technical people, this of course seems like a useless nonsense; this is possibly one of the reasons behind the span of negative reactions.

Personally speaking, my opinion is quite the opposite; I think that the problems that were raised in WSIS are real, and also, extremely important. The failure by many to understand or even accept them is, in my opinion, quite worrying.

Let me make examples. In a previous post on CircleID, I have seen another commenter ask a number of questions, including this one: “4. The Plan of Action also calls for regional root servers. What is the advantage of promoting regional root servers, what benefits will they provide to Internet users?”

I guess that the person making the question does not see any advantage for such thing - and in fact, there is not a credible advantage for such a change in technical terms. However, regional root servers have a clear and compelling motivation in political terms; to put it simply and directly, if a war (military or commercial) breaks up between your country and the United States of America, you won’t risk your economy collapsing and your communications dying off because all Internet domain names suddenly stop to resolve or point somewhere else as desired by your enemy.

And of course, this is a problem you can’t even figure out if your country is the United States of America, which explains why so many people in the Internet industry fail to understand what WSIS is about. (Or, sometimes, pretend to do so.)

So, let’s take another fundamental question that was previously posed: “What benefits does the United Nations offer over ICANN?”

Now, this question again shows a fundamental misunderstanding. We’re not talking about a frequent flyer program, where you choose the one that gives you the biggest rewards; we’re talking about control of a strategic resource, which is fundamental to each country for internal economical growth and for the circulation of ideas, news, know-how.

If we believe that the Internet is really for everyone, then it must be under the control of everyone - not just under the control of a few enlightened people from a few developed countries. And, like it or not, the citizens of the world - including those who can’t afford a computer yet - are, and can only be, represented by their governments.

So, I’m not denying the practical objections that are being made to a direct governmental administration of the Internet, and in fact I do support them; an intergovernmental administration of the Internet would likely to be a tragedy for everyone; and anyway, the most effective “Internet governance” action for me in 2003 was installing SpamAssassin on my mail server - which reminds me that, in practical terms, Internet governance is the sum of a huge number of distributed collective actions. However, you have to understand and solve the political problem, before you can propose any practical solution that can work happily and globally in the long term.

And by the way, if you look at the past history of ICANN, you will see that its actual openness, transparency, and support for the general public interest has often been questionable; the lack of direct involvement by governments has mostly meant that control has been left in the hands of a few powerful lobbies. While I doubt that, in an UN/governmental system, average Internet users would have more power than they have now, I also doubt that they could have much less.

This is why I think that just saying “governmental administration won’t work in practice” is not an answer to the real problem being raised at WSIS; and that ICANN itself should be the first and foremost promoter of yet another reform period, where its initial idea - a partnership between governments, industry, and users - can be upheld and evolved into a truly international structure, independent from any single country or interest group, multilingual, and immensely more diverse than ICANN is now.

By Vittorio Bertola, ICANN At Large Advisory Committee, Chairman

Filed Under


Jane Clinton  –  Dec 28, 2003 6:24 PM

Vittorio introduces an unnecessary note of paranoia in an otherwise good article.

Here is the question he raises and below that is a non-paranoid answer to it:

> Let me make examples. In a previous post on
> CircleID, I have seen another commenter ask
> a number of questions, including this
> one: “4. The Plan of Action also calls for
> regional root servers. What is the advantage
> of promoting regional root servers, what
> benefits will they provide to Internet
> users?”

The answer - leaving paranoia aside - can be seen in this excerpt from a press release of the Internet Software Consortium, upon installing yet another F-root mirror in a country which is not the United States:

—- Joao Damas, ISC Senior Programme Manager, said, “ISC is happy to deploy these two new F-root mirrors in collaboration with APNIC, contributing to the growth of the Internet in the Asia Pacific region. The mirror in ______, which has been installed also in collaboration with TWNIC will make ______’s Internet more robust against intercontinental link failures and improve response times for initial DNS searches significantly.”

You can fill in the blanks with any country name and the statement will still be true.


Tim O'Leary  –  Dec 29, 2003 7:03 AM

Could you explain to me what is the “unnecessary note of paranoia” . It is not obvious to me.

Vittorio Bertola  –  Dec 29, 2003 9:42 AM

Jane: Actually, your point supports my statement - there *is* a reason to promote regional root servers, and it is so compelling that, in the absence of a global agreement on the matter, the existing technical practices have been stretched to allow the deployment of new international root servers via the mirroring/anycast model. So I don’t really think it’s just personal paranoia :-)

However, a mirror is still just a mirror - if an international dispute upon the content of the root zone actually started, the only choice for the mirror manager would be to break up the mirroring and start a huge mess. Possibly there is a more effective technical and political model for “glocal” control and distribution of the root zone - certainly, this is an issue that deserves more discussion.

Jane Clinton  –  Dec 29, 2003 10:06 AM


The paranoia is in Vittorio Bertola’s answer to the question. He unnecessarily invokes the extreme situation of “war” and speaks of “your enemy”. Geographically dispersed root servers actually do have a real-life technical justification, which is what the ISC speaks of when it installs new ones.

Extreme situations like wars and extreme relationships like those with enemies can justify just about anything. Pushing words like that into the discourse increases the energy level by pumping the emotions. That in itself can cloud the issue, and since the emotion-pumping is being done unnecessarily, it introduces its own confusion - the confusion of paranoia.

Jane Clinton  –  Dec 29, 2003 11:32 AM


Your point about regional root servers is not the target of my criticism, although a big mess could be made of that just as a mess could be made in the existing, working, system.

What I was pointing out was the unnecessary interjection of talk about wars and enemies.


Vittorio Bertola  –  Dec 29, 2003 5:34 PM

Jane -

when you negotiate international treaties between countries, exactly as when you negotiate a business deal between two companies, you do take into account even the most extreme cases - and you have to do so very rationally.

In other words, I can assure you that a scenario of war (cold or hot) with the U.S. is part of what many governments, especially from developing countries, have in their minds these days, and is the compelling reason for many of their requests. You have to understand and accept this, if you want to find a compromise that can be accepted by everybody - and this is completely unrelated to what you or I may think of the U.S. foreign policy, or to the actual likelihood of such “wars”.

Possibly, the simple fact that the U.S., as most of the world’s countries, are currently engaged in military as well as commercial wars (think of what happened in Cancun, or the open conflicts about the Kyoto protocol), is enough for every other nation to take this possibility into account; and, for governmental people, these are the kind of dangers that they have to rule out in advance at all costs - certainly not “intercontinental link failures”.

So there’s nothing emotional in my argument - in fact, it’s just realpolitik. I am sorry if this disturbed you, but I was just trying to explain what are some of the actual reasons behind what is happening.

Jane Clinton  –  Dec 29, 2003 6:40 PM

Vittorio, You say just above that you only seek to _explain_ others’ fears of wars and enemies. But in your original article you described these concerns as “real, and also, extremely important.” And, “The failure by many to understand or even accept them is, in my opinion, quite worrying.”  The first example you give of these “real and important” concerns goes off on this wars and enemies track. Now, that says to me that you think fears of war are “real” and in fact you seek to justify them - in effect amplify them - not just explain them.

But the justification for fear of war that you give is the lack of agreement on how to handle international trade and the lack of agreement about how to proceed on global warming. You say these diplomatic stalemates are “enough for every other nation to take this possibility (of war!) into account”. I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. I would be surprised if many world leaders buy it, either. Even Libya’s Colonel Khaddafi is turning his nuclear projects over to the IAEA and ending his talk of wars and enemies. But then what do I know? I’ve never negotiated an international treaty.


Phil Howard  –  Jan 2, 2004 6:29 AM

There really is nothing stopping any country from simply going ahead and establishing their own regional root servers.  They can just do it and distribute their own hints files.  They could even mandate their use in law.  Whether they do or don’t isn’t a technical issue and doesn’t need any technical changes.  And most importantly, it won’t affect anyone else.  We don’t need any changes in the way things are run for them to do that.

My network, my rules.  Your network, your rules.  Their network, their rules.  If they want to communicate with me, we do have to meet at some common point.  But if I don’t want to budge, they have to do all the moving my way, or we just don’t communicate.  If communicating isn’t as important as standing our ground, then we just won’t communicate.

Countries like Saudia Arabia and the People’s Republic of China are known to be doing certain kinds of filtering of the internet access their citizens get.  Most of us may not agree with that, but that’s the way they do things there, perhaps.  But they are doing it now, and they haven’t needed to change the power structure of the internet to accomplish it.

You say we have to understand and solve the political problem before we can propose any practical solution.  But what problem is that?  I don’t see a problem here.  Governments of any country can do whatever they want within the structure of their own governmental/political organization and take control of their part of the internet any way they want.

Now if what these governments really want is to extend their control beyond their own national body, then I think it is out of scope for them, and their desires do not need to be addressed.  We can ignore them or tell them to just go to hell.  However, if they suggest something we do happen to agree with, maybe we’ll just do that.  If several countries want to do the same thing, maybe they will be happy to do whatever that is together.  Maybe they want to drop access to the “com” zone and establish theur own new registry for it, and share it between themselves.  I can tell you that quite many of us won’t go along.

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