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The UN and Internet Governance

The first keynote speaker at AoIR 2005 is Ang Peng Hwa from the Singapore Internet Research Centre (SIRC) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore - nice to see someone else who's come a long way to be here... He notes that this is an important time to do Internet research, and in particular to do work on Internet governance. He begins by outlining some of the background to Internet governance issues: originally, there was relatively little government interest in this issue, up to and including the 1998 International Forum on the White Paper (IFWP) on Net governance in various locations. Of 45 governments invited, only three attended the Singapore meeting of the IFWP - India, Singapore, and Malaysia -, for example.

Gradually, however, the idea of a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) gained momentum. The boom contributed to changing the environment; issues around US dominance of the Net became more pressing (Arab nations were especially left behind, and the government of Tunisia drove the process of addressing this issue); and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began to take a stronger interest. Telcos continued to talk down the Internet as a fad, however, and bet (wrongly) on more intelligent network technologies such as asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) rather than the relatively dumb network protocols of the Internet.

WSIS 2003 in Geneva almost failed, however - there was a clash of two visions (or alternatively a significant level of intransigence from the U.S. side): suggestions of classical inter-governmental arrangements conflicted with a modern private sector plus civil society arrangement. As a compromise, the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was developed. Further, around the same time there were issues around what would happen to the .iq country domain for Iraq; the U.S.-based administrator of the domain had been arrested in 2002 and was gaoled in 2004, and the .iq domain was only transferred to the new Iraqi government in 2005.

In its declaration of principles, WSIS therefore instituted WGIG, involving governments, the private sector, and civil society, "to investigate and make proposals for action, as appropriate". This is a fact-finding, not a negotiating, mandate, therefore. It involves 17 representatives from governments (including the EU), ten from business organisations, and 13 representatives of the civil society. From November to February it has conducted a number of meetings and developed around 20 issues papers (many of them related to ICANN), and Peng's contributions to this are largely related to his book Ordering Chaos: Regulating the Internet.

The approach taken by WGIG was to determine the adequacy of current governance arrangements against criteria and benchmarks set out in the WSIS Declaration of Principles - and Peng suggests hat the process was as important as the substance of WGIG's work; in fact, it was the major issue in WSIS negotiations - multistakeholder, multilateral, transparent, and democratic. WGIG has achieved a realisation of the need to involve civil society in the process (building on the Arabic idea of ummah, or community, and a greater international awareness of Internet governance issues, as well as providing a model of transparency in international fora.

Internet Governance isn't limited only to ICANN issues (as the ITU had attempted to define it). Instead, WGIG adopted a much broader definition, and included other significant public policy issues such as spam privacy, cybercrime, security, and Internet development, and governance deliberations must include the private sector and civil society rather than governments only. Internet governance is more than laws passed by parliaments, but includes social norms, markets, and architecture. This is also documented in the WGIG reports (existing as a briefer final report and a longer main report presenting various issues clusters).

Recommendations include:

  1. A forum to identify lacunae in existing structures, and for dialogue amongst stakeholders, possibly under UN auspices (and thus excluding the ITU).
  2. An oversight function which internationalises oversight over ICANN (away from US control).
  3. Institutional coordination between relevant existing institutions at all levels.

Four clusters of issues are:

  1. Physical infrastructure (political, ICANN-related issues).
  2. Use of the Internet (spam, network security, cybercrime).
  3. Internet issues with wider impact (competition policy, e-commerce, intellectual property rights).
  4. Development aspects of the Internet (for example, a digital solidarity fund.

Proposed models could be:

  1. A Global Internet Council (GIC) which removes ICANN control from the U.S. government.
  2. A Governmental Advisory Committee.
  3. An International Internet Council (where governments play a leading role).
  4. A Global Internet Policy Council (complicated organisation, and led by governments).

Losers in the WGIG deliberation process are the ITU (which overplayed its hand and did not participate constructively in the WGIG process) and the U.S. government, Peng suggests - the WGIG suggestions are very clearly to reduce the power of any one government over Internet governance. In response the U.S. Department of Commerce developed a statement on its principles for the domain name system which reaffirms the U.S. government's role in authorising changes or modifications to the root level domain name system - and the root DNS server for the Internet domain name system resides in the USA, under the control of ICANN (this is what Peng calls a 'hidden' server which underlies the 13 known root servers which keep the Internet DNS system running).

Issues with ICANN include that it is a US company under contract with the Department of Commerce, and it is likely to go wholly private in 2006. ICAN determines when a a generic top-level domain (gTLD) can be created (e.g. dotCAT for the Catalan region in Spain); and its Government Advisory Committee which allows governments to provide input into the ICANN process is the least transparent of its committees. At the same time, ICANN is working reasonably well overall, but is rapidly squandering the goodwill of its non-U.S. participants who originally saw the U.S.'s sharing of ICANN with the world as a generous gesture.

Recently, the PrepCom3 meeting took place which used the WGIG as the basis for its negotiations. At this meeting, three distinct positions emerged: the isolated U.S. view on Internet governance; a EU position which proposed a forum outside of the UN (an Inter-Governmental Council for Global Public Policy and Oversight of Internet Governance, which may be able to bypass U.S. misgivings about involving the UN); and a Brazil/China/India position - all three positions excluded the civil society, however, and there is now talk about having a parallel WSIS session for civil society representatives to keep them from other WSIS sessions.

The idea case would be that there is a forum which involves civil society representatives, that there is funding for ICT in the least developed countries, and that political concerns over the root DNS are addressed; the worst case may be a spillover of global political battles into the Internet governance arena, and the formation of a parallel Internet for civil society. Ultimately, Peng suggests, there may be a settlement at WSIS which takes in both U.S. and EU positions. As a way forward for civil society representatives and researchers, then, Peng closes by proposing the development of an ICA workshop on Internet governance (probably to be held at a monastery near Dresden) which aims to develop a network of scholars on Internet governance.