Power, Legitimacy, and the Future of the Internet
  What Next after the Working Group on Internet Governance?
  19 August 2005. The Working Group on Internet Governance has fulfilled its mandate from the Geneva information society summit. What can be learned from this innovative multi-stakeholder process, and how are the chances "Internet governance" does not end up as the struggle between the United States and some Southern governments about the control of ICANN and the root zone file?

The WGIG report was presented to all stakeholders in an open discussion in Geneva on 18 July, and more consultations were held on 20 July. A few days ago, the period for submitting written comments ended. The cards are more or less on the table now for the negotiations that will consume most of time of the third meeting of the WSIS Preparatory Committee (PrepCom-3) in September. A number of civil society groups have filed comments, and especially the Internet Governance Caucus has discussed many aspects and possible future issues at length.

Decentralization of the root zone file?

One of the hot issues of Internet governance in the WSIS process has been the control of the root zone file, the single table on top of the domain name system hierarchy. It is currently managed by ICANN, but entries and changes have to be authorized by the US Department of Commerce. Many other governments have repeatedly asked for an internationalization of this global resource, while the United States have recently confirmed that they intend to keep control here. If this issue is not resolved at the Tunis summit in November, some experts are expecting a tendency towards alternative root servers. As WGIG member Avri Doria stated, 

"the push for these namespaces is about to boil over, and despite the technical problems and perhaps the inadvisability of such a move, it is going to happen sooner or later. So, given that eventuality, I wonder whether it is time to start work on the solutions that would allow continuing Internet connectivity. We can advise as much as we want against the creation of multiple name spaces, but such a policy cannot be enforced.  Should the policy CS recommends be one of refusal to accept the possibility or should the policy recommendation be one of preparation for the probable? Or is this an area we should avoid for the time being while focusing on the more pressing needs of developing countries?"

The Caucus in its written comments confirmed its agreement with WGIG,

"that in future no single government should have a pre-eminent role in global governance of the logical infrastructure of the Internet. (.) Governance arrangements for the root zone file should be outside the control of any individual government, and broadly acceptable to all stakeholders. If this issue is not addressed, it will lead to an increase in the number of alternative root structures that could impact negatively on the Internet's security, stability and interoperability.  Under the current naming scheme, this could lead to the fragmentation of the Internet and the user community."

ICANN, WICANN, or What Kind of Governance Structure?

The question then is: How should the future governance structure for the root look like? The political options for Internet Governance (besides unilateral US control) will all change the current distribution of power in the ICANN setting. Some argued for a stronger role of ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), at least for country-code domain names (ccTLDs). This would basically mean internationalization in the classical - intergovernmental - sense, and this is what a number of stronger Southern countries and to a lesser extend the European Union have asked for. The WGIG report called this option "World ICANN" (WICANN). In this case, a framework convention or treaty would be needed to replace the more informal arrangements currently in place for the relationship between the GAC and ICANN's board.

Others have suggested that ICANN becomes even more independent, with no governmental or international oversight body. This way, it would be easier to avoid a politicization of more or less technical tasks and maintaining the more bottom-up driven policy process in ICANN. But in this case, some effort would still be needed to improve the meaningful participation of developing countries and grassroots and users interest groups.

The fact that this debate is not pure theory became very clear over the weekend: The chair Government Advisory Committee has asked ICANN to stop and reverse the decision to introduce a new generic top-level domain ".xxx". Theoretically, the ICANN board could just go ahead, as the GAC can only submit recommendations which ICANN can reject (with publishing the reasons for the rejection). But then, the final decision will be at the Department of Commerce, where the right-wing christian David A. Sampson has been appointed new deputy secretary recently, and the DOC has filed a letter in support of the GAC recommendation. It looks like the US government is playing a game here in order to distract from the WSIS struggle over ICANN. As CPSR president Bill Drake put it:

"Now with the WGIG/WSIS process going on, XXX has become the supposed poster child example of a system run amuck and in need of greater government oversight. It was invoked repeatedly at WGIG release event. And given its own domestic scene, the US government is willing to hand governments a symbolic victory and nominally demonstrate a new responsiveness to global concerns - convenient timing since it refuses to consider more substantive changes. Apparently there is no major worry about setting precedents and compromising ICANN's position."

These tactics in the end could change the whole power structure over the Internet's core resources, some civil society activists like Milton Mueller from Internet Governance Project are afraid. But the civil society groups so far could not agree on a common interpretation of these latest events.

The strategic question, which has been discussed but not really solved by civil society yet, is: If one asks for a reform of the existing Internet governance structure (on good grounds, especially with the latest US government attempt to stop the .xxx domain) - what are the alternatives? Would a call for reform not automatically imply a support for stronger involvement of other governments, ones that are even less democratic and more interested in censorship and surveillance? Ronald Coven from the World Press Freedom Committee warned:

"If/when ITU or another UN agency actually has real authority over how the Internet works, can one imagine how it will respond to pressures on content/freedom of expression, etc., from the Chinas, Cubas, Syrias, Pakistans, etc.? The current situation is not by any means an ideal theoretical model. But it works. Why not wait until it stops working more or less well before trying to substitute a theoretically better model that could be far worse in practice? It is a case in which the best is the enemy of the good."

Civil Society in the end has not come up with a real solution for this. Some for example argue that the current flexible rules of procedure in ICANN are good, while others insist on more formalization in order to balance powerful actors. There is much further debate needed, but the diversity of views is very high in this field. The coordinators of the Internet Governance Caucus, Jeanette Hofmann and Adam Peake (with a lot of help from Karen Banks), therefore have to be applauded for still making it possible that the Caucus agreed on a comprehensive comment on the WGIG report. But a number of questions are still open.

What kind of Internet do we want?

The discussion over the relative distribution of power in the governance of the Internet's domain name space is interesting for ICANN insiders and political scientists. And of course everybody wants more civil society inclusion and dialogue in this field. In this regard, the WGIG was and still serves as an important model. Others are more concerned about the way the Internet looks like and functions, no matter who controls it in the end. Robert Guerra from Privaterra.org asked the right questions in the debate about decentralized domain name systems:

"1. Freedom of expression - Is censorship easier or harder?
DNS poisoning is well documented in certain parts of the world. Would any new/alternate system make it any easier for sites to be inaccessible, ie. blocked in some way? If we want to ensure that Freedom is in fact preserved - then any revisions to the DNS system should strive to make it harder, not easier for censorship to take place.
2. Privacy &  Anonymity
In addition to censorship issue, any new proposals should be designed in such a way that privacy and anonymity is maximized.  The current system is increasingly under attack - not from terrorists, but by governments who are increasing calling for surveillance and data retention laws to be passed."

Another issue is the maintenance of the end-to-end principle. This means that Internet traffic (IP packets) is transmitted from one computer to the other on the transport layer only, without any interference by the higher levels (application layer etc.), and without any filtering on the providers' side. Only an Internet that still works like this (more or less, there are reasonable exceptions for mobile applications etc.) can serve as a medium for promoting and expanding free speech and transnational grassroots and citizens' exchange. The European Union has finally understood the importance of this point, and the Internet Governance Caucus has supported this view:

"The end-to-end principles should be preserved and reinforced against all attempt to introduce control over the Internet."

Another issue beyond ICANN the Civil Society Caucus mentioned is "intellectual property rights":

"They are identified as important issues relevant to Internet governance [in the WGIG report], but the report makes no corresponding policy recommendation (.).New instruments to govern Intellectual Property on the Internet (such as WIPO's Internet Treaties, and the UDRP) have been developed without effective consideration of the rights of users."

The Caucus members

"support the proposals in WIPO for a significant Development Agenda and consideration of an Access to Knowledge Treaty." We believe that organisations responsible for developing such instruments must look to the interests of end-users and society as they have been articulated in other IP legislation such as copyright and fair use, and provide an ongoing voice for these interests. We further believe that key technologies and standards underpinning the Internet should be made available for use free of charge and not subject to capture or control by any single government or entity."

Will all of these substantial issues be addressed by the WSIS? Will they be taken into account during the negotiations in Geneva and Tunis? Or will they be lost in the struggle over the end of US government control of the root zone file? The WSIS Civil Society Privacy and Security Working Group in its comment on the WGIG report has explicitly asked for a view beyond ICANN:

"While the findings and recommendations of the WGIG are a great step forward in the WSIS discussions around privacy, we all have to make sure they will be integrated in any documents which will be adopted at the Tunis Summit. They must not be neglected or made part of a trade-off when the contested political issues of Internet governance such as the future control of the root zone file are being discussed in the months leading up to the Tunis summit. Privacy and data protection are too important in the Information society to be forgotten in the struggles over the core technical resources of the Internet."

Multi-Stakeholderism in Internet Governance: Next Steps

At the open consultations on the WGIG report on 18 July in Geneva, the most widely applauded achievement of the group was the way it made possible a frank discussion among government delegates, business interests and civil society experts. Though WGIG had no mandate to negotiate or decide anything, the report and the process that led to it have brought much more clarity for all parties involved. Many participants asked how this model can be carried forward to the upcoming PrepCom. WGIG member Jacqueline Morris asked

"if we have members of the private sector and civil society who are useful, who can add to the discussion, then why do those people have to be restricted to sharing 15 minutes at the beginning or the end of the session, at which point we are not very useful because the session is already done. Most of the time we talk at the end and the sessions are already done. And that's not really that helpful."

The Internet Governance Caucus in its comment supported this view:

"We hope that the multi-stakeholder approach as explored by WGIG will become a reference model for future WSIS discussions, and for Internet governance organizations and processes generally."

Therefore, it was no surprise that the Caucus also supports the WGIG recommendation to set up a global multi-stakeholder forum for discussing Internet governance.

"The caucus supports the establishment of a new forum to address the broad agenda of Internet governance issues, provided it is truly global, inclusive, and multi-stakeholder in composition. Stakeholders from all sectors must be able to participate in such a forum as peers."

In order to make sure  that the process towards this end already incorporates the multi-stakeholder idea of the forum, the caucus came up with a neat idea:

"The caucus recommends that Sub-Committee A [of the PrepCom] create a multi-stakeholder working group to address the evolution of the forum"

This suggestion certainly makes sense if the summit in the end is to set up a multi-stakeholder forum. On the other hand, it is pretty much in conflict with established UN procedures. A bigger influence and part for civil society and the private sector has already met opposition from countries like India and Brazil. They are afraid that a small group of well-resourced and mostly Western experts could influence decisions by governments that represent millions or billions of people - and Internet users. The Indian delegate asked,

"are we not risking capture of the process by a few - a few well-organized people with very clear perspectives?"

And he even warned,

"should these viewpoints continue to be articulated and should the other elements, non-government elements, continue to demand a sort of equal say in the process, - for example, in the WSIS - and perhaps even later, then what we could find is the viewpoint of dominant groups and dominant classes prevailing over the vast majority of those who not feel sufficiently well equipped or do not have the opportunity to express their viewpoints."

Civil Society of course has an interest it can still be a serious part of the discussions around Internet governance in the months leading up to the Tunis summit. It will raise this issue again during the Internet governance consultations on 6 September. The designated chair of PrepCom subcommittee 2A, which will negotiate the Internet governance language for the summit documents, Ambassador Masood Khan from Pakistan, has already signalled that he likes civil society to stay part of the discussion.

Legitimacy of Global Governance

This debate, in the end, is about power and legitimacy in global governance. Civil society has for a long time tried to get more influence in UN politics and other global processes, in order to bring in expertise, a public interest perspective, and the point of view of the individual, be it Internet users, consumers, workers or just citizens. Its legitimacy is based not in whom it represents, but what it does. On the other hand, governments - at least the democratic ones - represent the will of the electorate and can be held accountable to them. The lack of accountability is certainly a problem for civil society, but even more for the private sector. On the other side, again, no government will face problems being re-elected over questions like the ICANN bylaws or privacy protection in the WHOIS database. Therefore, a more direct channel of communication and participation is needed between the citizens and the decision-makers. This is where WSIS still can serve as a model, where experiments can be made and lessons learned for more inclusive, transparent and responsive global governance.

Kofi Annan has called civil society "the world's new superpower", and added, "partnership between the United Nations and civil society is not an option, but a necessity." Civil society's main strength lies not in nuclear missiles or huge financial assets, but in its expertise and its function as the world's conscience. The academic and political debates over decision-making and legitimacy in global governance have just started, and there is still a long way towards any stable model, no matter how much influence the different stakeholders will get in the end. But the WSIS process so far has helped to flesh out some of the issues and options and to serve as a laboratory for enhancing legitimacy on the global political level.


Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG)

Comments on the WGIG report

Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus

Worldsummit2005.org coverage and background information on Internet Governance




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