February 27 might be marked as the date ICANN officially lost control of public discourse on Internet governance. On those dates an ITU workshop brought the Internet folks (root server operators, RIRs, ICANN staff, ISOC, W3C, former ICANN Board members, ccTLD representatives and Robert Kahn), and the academic policy analysts following WSIS and Internet governance into direct contact with the traditionalist national government representatives of China, Brazil, and Syria and some of the political leaders of the WSIS process, notably Swiss "e-Envoy" Markus Kummer.*
If the workshop had any lasting effect, it was to lay to rest the ICANN- promulgated myth that the Internet is currently free of governance and thus any discussion of it needs to be avoided or short-circuited.
As speaker after speaker called attention to the policy implications not only of the ICANN regime but also of several other Internet-related international rules (e.g., Council of Europe Cybercrime Treaty), it became clear that the intergovernmental system is not going to obligingly go away if ignored. Participants largely dismissed ICANNs (now halfheartedly made) claim that it only does technical coordination, and directly confronted the issue of how technical issues and policy issues can be interrelated. The eerie coincidence of the VeriSign lawsuit only reinforced the point. ICANN is now legally and officially accused of being a rogue economic regulator.
Politically, the meeting reinforced the momentum created by the World Summit on the Information Society, which succeeded in inserting "traditional" intergovernmental institutions back into the Internet governance debate. It did this by coopting an energized civil society, a nontraditional factor in the international system. WSIS attracted hundreds of active NGOs and freelance communication-information policy activists, many of them, like Izumi Aizu, people who had become active first around ICANN. These actors seem to feel that they are getting more political traction through their WSIS related activities than through participating in ICANN. (My cynical take on this is that many cyber-activists prefer the WSIS and ITU forums because they can talk about euphonious terms like "participation" or "the peer production of governance" and avoid the tough, tedious, mud-wrestles over policy that happen when they actually are included as participants.)
ITU staff members Richard Hill and Robert Shaw successfully courted civil society participants by giving them a platform and showing that, if nothing else, the ITU can give them access to governments and IGOs and treat them as equals. More broadly, ITU showed that it can succeed in bringing together parties that normally talk past each other for a dialogue. Serious questions can still be raised about the superiority of the intergovernmental system over the ICANN-self governance regime, however. This type of workshop is not typical of how governments make real treaties or policy decisions. And as the interventions of the Chinese delegate proved, many governments still don't welcome civil society participation. China, (apparently disturbed by a snowballing discussion of "netizens" and online democracy) opposed allowing any of the workshop materials to be included in the official report, seeing it as merely an information session that could be utilized (or not) in a future meeting of member states. Interestingly, some European governments, notably the Danish, took the same line, although for different reasons (they want EU, not ITU, to take the lead).
The ITU is now rather overtly positioning itself to inherit or take control of certain Internet governance functions that seem to require multilateral agreements among governments. However, this positioning is coming more from corridor discussions and over-beer ruminations - there was no discernable manipulation of the program (indeed, the author of this piece complained to Shaw and Hill that the ICANN panel contained only pro-ICANN speakers).
*Kummer surprised many in the audience when he noted that he had been approached about chairing the yet-to-be-created UN Working Group on Internet Governance.
Milton L. Mueller is a Professor at the School of Information Studies, Syracuse University, New York State.
This article appeared first on February 29th 2004 at www.ICANNwatch.org