Grabbing at Governance

Internet governance: what’s the situation and how is it evolving? Wendy M Grossman explores these questions in light of the coming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT).

Image: CC-AT-NC-SA 2.0 Anton Power

Someday the development of internet governance will look like a continuous historical sweep whose outcome, in hindsight, is obvious. At the beginning will be one man, Jon Postel, who in the mid-1990s was, if anyone was, the god of the internet. At the end will be…well, we don't know yet. And the sad thing is that the road to governance is so long and frankly so dull: years of meetings, committees, proposals, debate, redrafted proposals, diplomatic language, and, worst of all, remote from the mundane experience of everyday internet users, such as spam and whether they can trust their banks' web sites.

But if we care about the future of the internet we must take an interest in what authority should be exercised by the International Telecommunications Union or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or some other yet-to-be-defined. In fact, we are right on top of a key moment in that developmental history: from December 3 to 14, the ITU is convening the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced "wicket"). The big subject for discussion: how and whether to revise the 1988 International Telecommunications Regulations.

Plans for WCIT have been proceeding for years. In May, civil society groups concerned with civil liberties and human rights signed a letter to ITU secretary-general Hamadeoun Touré asking the ITU to open the process to more stakeholders. In June, a couple of frustrated academics changed the game by setting up WCITLeaks asking anyone who had copies of the proposals being submitted to the ITU to send copies. Scrutiny of those proposals showed the variety and breadth of some countries' desires for regulation. On November 7, the ITU's secretary-general, Hamadoun Touré, wrote an op-ed for Wired arguing that nothing would be passed except by consensus.

On Monday, he got a sort of answer from the International Trade Union Congress secretary, Sharan Burrow who, together with former ICANN head Paul Twomey, and, by video link, internet pioneer Vint Cerf , launched the Stop the Net Grab campaign. The future of the internet, they argued, is too important to too many stakeholders to leave decisions about its future up to governments bargaining in secret. The ITU, in its response, argued that Greenpeace and the ITUC have their facts wrong; after the two sides met, the ITUC reiterated its desire for some proposals to be taken off the table.

But stop and think. Opposition to the ITU is coming from Greenpeace and the ITUC?

"This is a watershed," said Twomey. "We have a completely new set of players, nothing to do with money or defending the technology. They're not priests discussing their protocols. We have a new set of experienced international political warriors saying, 'We're interested'."

Explained Burrow, "How on earth is it possible to give the workers of Bahrain or Ghana the solidarity of strategic action if governments decide unions are trouble and limit access to the Internet? We must have legislative political rights and freedoms - and that's not the work of the ITU, if it requires legislation at all."

At heart for all these years, the debate remains the same: who controls the internet? And does governing the internet mean regulating who pays whom or controlling what behaviour is allowed? As Vint Cerf said, conflating those two is confusing content and infrastructure.

Twomey concluded, "[Certain political forces around the world] see the ITU as the place to have this discussion because it's not structured to be (nor will they let it be) fully multi-stakeholder. They have taken the opportunity of this review to bring up these desires. We should turn the question around: where is the right place to discuss this and who should be involved?"

In the journey from Postel to governance, this is the second watershed. The first step change came in 1996-1997, when it was becoming obvious that governing the internet - which at the time primarily meant managing the allocation of domain names and numbered internet addresses (under the aegis of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) - was too complex and too significant a job for one man, no matter how respected and trusted. The Internet Society and IANA formed the Internet Ad-Hoc Committee, which, in a published memorandum, outlined its new strategy. And all hell broke loose.

Long-term, the really significant change was that until that moment no one had much objected to either the decisions the internet pioneers and engineers made or their right to make them. After some pushback, in the end the committee was disbanded and the plan scrapped, and instead a new agreement was hammered out, creating ICANN. But the lesson had been learned: there were now more people who saw themselves as internet stakeholders than just the engineers who had created it, and they all wanted representation at the table.

In the years since, the make-up of the groups demanding to be heard has remained pretty stable, as Twomey said: engineers and technologists; representatives of civil society groups, usually working in some aspect of human rights, usually civil liberties, such as EFF, ORG, CDT, and Public Knowledge, all of whom signed the May letter. So yes, for labour unions and Greenpeace to decide that internet freedoms are too fundamental to what they do to not participate in the decision-making about its future, is a watershed.

"We will be active as long as it takes," Burrow said Monday.


Wendy M. Grossman’s web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series.

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By Wendy M Grossman on Nov 20, 2012

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