20 April 2005. The WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance has had its third meeting on the last three days in Geneva. The discussion is now moving from mapping the internet governance landscape of institutions and stakeholders towards assessments and recommendations. Monday’s session was conducted as an open consultation, yesterday and today the group was meeting in private. Expectedly, a few conflicts surfaced again, which mainly circled around the role of different stakeholders, the question of a new organisational framework, and the Multilateralization of the core Internet resources. But progress can be observed.
What the hell is “Internet Governance”? And what is “Democratic?”
ITU’s secretary Yoshio Utsumi and a number of other participants, mainly from developing countries, in the public consultations urged the group to finally come up with a working definition of “Internet governance”. They clearly do not expect an academic or technical term, but hope for something pragmatic, something that will on one hand be appropriate for heads of state at the summit, and on the other hand can facilitate discussions at PrepCom3 in September. So, the discussion also focused on what to focus on. And the question of what the issues are is not trivial, but rather involves a political decision, as it widens or narrows the agenda.
The working group recently has produced a number of working papers grouped around several clusters:
- 1a: physical and secured infrastructure of the Internet
- 1b: logical infrastructure of the Internet (multilingualization, IP numbers, domain names, root servers)
- 2: use of the Internet
- 3. wider impact, developmental aspects of the Internet (competition policy, liberalization, privatization, regulations, e-commerce, taxation, trade , intellectual property rights).
Then, existing governance mechanisms were assessed against a list of criteria as the WSIS summit had decided in 2003. The summit’s decision in fact had called for multilateralism, transparency, and democracy. It had also asked that the management of the Internet has to be done with the full involvement of all stakeholders, an equitable distribution of resources and access for all, and should ensure a stable and secure functioning of the Internet, taking into account multilingualism.
The WGIG has sorted it a bit differently:
- Transparency (governance and statutory requirements, meetings, translation, documentation)
- Accountability (structure and functioning of decision-making powers, participation and comment, appeals)
- Democracy (roles, composition, and representation of stakeholders, participation of disadvantaged stakeholders like developing countries and civil society)
The following discussions evolved around the scope of the inquiry as well as the criteria for assessing the current landscape.
American Dominance? Or Multilateralization of the Internet?
Quite a few governments in the beginning made clear that their objective still is to break the U.S. final oversight over some of the core resources of the Internet, namely the root server for the domain space. Some, though, confused the domain name system with the Internet as a whole, which involves much more, like the physical communication layer, IP-based routing and other things. The delegate from Syria even dared to state (contra-factually) that “the Internet today is governed by American Law and managed by an American Business. We all know it, we cannot accept it.” This critique of “American dominance in Internet governance”, though in nicer words, was supported by a number of participants, from South Africa, India and elsewhere.
The delegate from the United States government therefore was very cautious and defensive, and tried to leave the impression that they are not resisting change:
“This may be the situation now because it’s the way the Internet developed in the past. It is a matter of history rather than due to any kind of conspiracy. No conclusion should be drawn as to what will happen.”
The State Department in Washington D.C. today also conducted a public briefing on the WGIG, though, and the officials there were a bit more outspoken on their home turf. Ambassador David Gross made clear that the United States prefers a leadership of the private sector in Internet governance and is willing to resist the current discussion around a multilateralization of the core internet resources.
The European Union, in a surprising move, had distanced itself from the United States on Monday during the consultations in Geneva. The EU presidency had stated that the EU prefers a “stronger emphasis on the public policy interests of all governments”. This does not automatically mean a new international organization to run the net or a new task for the ITU. It could also be satisfied by a stronger role of the Governmental Advisory Committee at ICANN, especially as the EU suggested to “build on the existing structures of Internet governance”. The U.S. government now is “concerned” that the European Union position substantially differs from the U.S.
The EU, it seems, is trying to reduce American dominance on the Internet and also to build a bridge to the more outspoken governments from developing countries that only want an intergovernmental mechanism. The EU called for an “internationalization of the management of the Internet’s core resources: The domain name system, IP addresses, the root server system.” But its idea is in fact to have an internationalized oversight or authorization mechanism. The governments clearly should not mess with the technicians: “Governments do have a specific mission (…) excluding any involvement in the day-to-day operations.”
Multistakeholderism or Internationalization?
This led to an interesting discussion about the possible Internet governance framework and its legitimacy. While India insisted that only “governments and governments alone can claim to speak on behalf of the public”, Syria and others mentioned the ITU’s experience with involving the private sector. For civil society, this had been a constant problem, as the ITU sector membership involves heavy fees. The “intergovernmentalization” faction also includes China, South Africa and a couple of other governments. The ITU itself also clearly wants to play a bigger role in Internet governance. The overarching question was the legitimacy of the respective governance mechanisms. Lyndall Shope-Mafole, WGIG member and former South African delegation leader to the WSIS negotiations, made the problem very clear:
“How do you make the mechanism fully accountable when it is multi-stakeholder? The roles or the mandates or the powers or the legitimacy of the different stakeholders is not the same: Governments that are elected that have public accountability in their countries; the private sector that is accountable to its stakeholders; civil society – I’m not sure what the accountability to civil society is. The only legitimate mechanism that we know that represents the will of the peoples of the world is the U.N. system.”
Legitimacy: Who serves the (global) public interest?
On the other side, there is the private sector and parts of civil society. They clearly prefer a loosely regulated process, which is flexible and bottom-up and only has minimal government oversight, if at all. The ICANN representative constantly made clear that ICANN itself is in another reform process and will take into account all the suggestions that have been voiced in the WSIS process. The delegate from the Internet Society (ISOC) also tried to argue against a new international structure:
“We are concerned that many of the WGIG’s premises seem to start with an assumption that the Internet needs a hierarchical top-down governance model implying one organization and thereby ignoring the decentralized structure on which the Internet was so successfully built.”
Marilyn Cade from ITT, one of the more famous ICT industry lobbyists in the U.N. hallways, also urged the group to “look at each of the organizations that is today involved in Internet governance, and to look at how they need to change, to broaden participation, to improve their transparency. If we do that, we will advance the work and performance of each of those organizations, and not necessarily create new organizations.”
Peiman Seadat, a WGIG member from the Iranian government, responded that the corporate sector, which plays an important role in many of the Internet’s bodies, has at least a questionable credibility:
“Governments have not been able to develop the concept of corporate responsibility. We have not been able to bring it to a mature stage because of the impediments and resistance we faced before.”
Bertrand de La Chapelle from WSIS-online, in return, reminded him that even if perfectly legitimate governments come together in the U.N. system, the outcome is not necessarily good. “They cannot suffice to establish or determine what the global public interest is without the contribution of the other stakeholders.”
So, in the end, it was clear that Internet governance has to be done in a smart mix of government, private sector, and civil society in involvement. The challenging question then is: How should the mix look like?
One large organization? Or a governance network?
This “UN vs. private self-regulation” debate has gone on for ages, and the WGIG now has actually helped to shape it in a more constructive way. Bertrand de La Chapelle argued against one single organization, because there is different involvement of stakeholders needed and existing on different levels and in different issue clusters.
WGIG member Wolfgang Kleinwächter from the Internet Governance Caucus suggested to have a distributed governance network for the different functions, but at the same time to have a single oversight body with no or very limited decision-making powers:
“I could imagine that at the end of the day, we have something like a broad multi-stakeholder body, I personally call it the United Nations Internet Governance Communications Group. This group could get the mandate to write an annual world internet report so that in this report we have an annual inventory of issues which are important. It’s like the human rights annual report, which goes out on some problematic areas and rings the alarm bell that something has to be done. But this committee has no decision-making power.”
An outlook to the WGIG report and beyond
WGIG Chairman Nitin Desai reminded the group members that they have quite some work ahead of them. He even threatened that
“in June, we will go away in almost a retreat mode, where members of the working group will not be permitted to enjoy the Geneva summer until they complete their work.”
The discussion this week has shown that the old “ICANN vs. ITU” debate is over, and the issues are looked at in several dimensions now. The result of the WGIG’s work will probably be a broad definition of “Internet governance” (Australia, India, and the Francophonie insisted in also dealing with topics like multilingual domain names, peering costs and capacity-building), a series of recommendations on how to improve transparency and accountability of the existing structures on the different levels, and a proposal for some coordinating or oversight mechanism on the political level.
The interesting conflicts will then again arise at PrepCom3 in September, when the governments will have to decide where to locate this new structure and which mandate to give to it. It does not have to be the ITU model, it can also be the existing ICANN-plus arrangement that then gets based on an international framework convention or even a treaty. If, well, if the United States can agree to that. The momentum is clearly pushing into a more internationalized structure now, since the EU has made clear it is not satisfied with the current United States dominance. The Internet community – which still prefers the existing structure – will also have to face this, as Nitin Desai reminded them:
“The distinction between the Internet community and citizens as a whole is becoming less and less. It is increasingly the case that large parts of the population are, in fact, netizens, so the distinction that, in fact, this is the interest of the internet community, whereas, this is the interest of the public interest as articulated by governments is becoming more and more tenuous because the two sets are overlapping so much now.”
Civil society groups again will have to discuss how much and which kind of multi-stakerholderism they want to accept. A more formal inclusion based on the WSIS process and the WGIG composition would be along the lines of the general United Nations reform debate that last summer led to the Cardoso report “We the peoples: civil society, the United Nations and global governance“. But, as we have recently discussed elsewhere, multi-stakeholder structures also give more weight to the private sector. And the problem of corporate responsibility is not an easy one.
The WGIG can leave its footprint in history if it comes up with innovative models that somehow incorporate NGOs and the private sector into international law and at the same time hold them responsible. This is the whole idea of the democratization of global governance: To politically catch up with global markets and developments by the will of the global public though accountable and democratic political structures. These new structures will not be based on the old model of intergovernmental diplomacy, in either case. If the more technically-oriented membership of WGIG can live up to these high expectations, remains to be seen.