Civil Society debates Internet Governance
  16 July 2003. In the run-up to the Intersessional Meeting which is currently taking place in Paris, controversial debates broke out between civil society members around the theme of internet governance. While some criticised the business-based approach of ICANN, a largely corporate body which currently regulates most of the basic rules of the internet, others feared a government-led take-over of the net through ITU.

The first version of the Civil Society Priorities document stated that the current management of internet names and numbers as well as other regulations "should be re-examined with the full participation of all stakeholders ...".

Stick with ICANN?
Several participants of Civil Society discussions felt that such a statement could be interpreted as support for a shift in internet governance from ICANN to the ITU. Many governments had previously expressed their wish to give an intergovernmental body more control in regulating the net, often enough for dubious reasons. One member of the Civil Society organisation involved in governance issues said that this statement "can only serve to support the arguments of governments that wish to gain control over Internet resource allocation, and others hoping to see the ITU or some other inter-governmental organization take control of Internet naming and addressing." It would be seen as a call for governments to take over the internet management system. And as another observer stated, "unless there was simultaneously some fundamental changes in the ITU's membership and procedures, this would be a disaster for civil society organizations (which are unable to participate there, unlike in ICANN) and probably for the Internet more generally." While everyone regarded ICANN as far from perfect, its policy making processes were seen as far more open to Civil Society than those of any possible alternatives.

Or support ITU?
Opponents argued that "ICANN has been and still is in the hands of the corporate interests, and that ICANN final decisions are in the hands of the US Department of Commerce, to which ICANN reports and without which it doesn't make any important decision." A "byzantine structure" like ICANN would essentially be geared towards corporate needs and would therefore not be an appropriate system for allocating a global commons. As for government control of the net, one observer stated: "When governments are in, we favour multilateralism among unilateralism (i.e. in this case the sole US government decision)".

Another rationale for supporting change towards ITU participation in internet management was seen in encouraging competition between the two institutions. Internet governance split between ICANN and the ITU, and thereby a separation of powers, was regarded as a promising path towards keeping the dangers of internet control at a minimum.

State control vs. Corporate influence
Essentially, the debate was about choosing the lesser evil - corporate regulation with some Civil Society input, leaning towards neoliberalism, or government-based regulation, implying the danger of repressive abuse by states. A "third way", calling for complete reexamination and discussion on new bases, and to work out models for alternative regulation, was seen by many as the most desirable option - in the words of one discussant: "taking stands on behalf of the non-state, non-corporate public interest" - but also as unrealistic at the present state of negotiations.

A compromise
The final version of the Priorities document offered a compromise, referring to "the values of participation, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability", calling for "the democratic management of international bodies dealing with ICTs", and stressing "public interests and compatibility with human rights standards".

In the first plenary session of the Intersessional Meeting, Wolfgang Kleinwaechter from the Internet Governance Caucus elaborated on this approach, calling for an inclusion of all stakeholders - civil society, private industry and governments - and noting that "no single body and no single stakeholder group is able to manage these challenges alone". Internet management should be a bottom-up process, "as inclusive as possible, transparent and open for participation by all interested parties, in particular for civil society and individual Internet users." But, referring to the first of the above positions, he also made clear that the Caucus saw "no need for any inter-governmental organization to take responsibility for management of the domain names and the IP addresses," but that rather "we see a need for ongoing improvement of the existing structures and mechanisms."


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