The Internet has thrived under decentralized, bottom-up, multi-stakeholder governance model… why change it now?
The Internet exists to allow information to be distributed freely, and while there isn’t one gatekeeper there are certainly many who are trying to control it. Conflicts are playing out across the globe. The ‘International Telecommunication Union’ (ITU), a UN agency, is hosting the ‘World Conference on International Telecommunications’ (WCIT) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 3-14, 2012. The purpose of this conference is to reach consensus among 193 ITU members on updating 1988 ‘International Telecommunications Regulations’ (ITR) governing international telecommunications and issues relating to Internet governance… According to Jemima Kiss; Russia and China have been explicit in their goal of taking control of the Internet away from U.S. while developing countries feel western technology hegemony is limiting their economic opportunities. With world’s Internet population predicted to reach 3.4 billion by 2016, much is at stake… According to Dr. Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of ITU; when an invention becomes used by billions across the world, it no longer remains the sole property of one nation, however powerful that nation might be. There should be mechanism where many countries have an opportunity to have a say. According to Vint Cerf, Google; it’s absolute antithesis of the Internet where the participating parties on the edge of the network pay for access to it… Freedom to innovate on the network has been largely a consequence of its economic model and its openness. The ad-hoc coalition lobbying against ITU proposals is made up of Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Comcast, AT&T and 10 others. Western dominance is one of the biggest challenges for developing nations, says Alice Munyua, representing Kenya and Africa; it’s a big concern for African governments and stakeholders, and not just because of how the Internet is governed, but how it’s developed from a commercial and technical perspective. There is feeling that we are not able to participate-contribute effectively because of the lack of capacity, skills and resources, so there’s a digital divide in terms of access, but also in appropriating the Internet for our development. Elsewhere in the ITU, the battle for control is more like a cold war. Russia, backed by several Middle Eastern countries and China, has pushed for cyber-security regulations and ITU control of domain names. Recently, Vladimir Putin, Russia president, said; we must establish international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the ITU… According to Milton Mueller; We’re all prepared to fight the ITU – but, we’re ignoring threats that come from ICANN, U.S. government, and nation states. We’re not building the kind of new institutions that we need to govern the Internet and keep it free.
The Internet is a globally distributed network comprising many voluntarily interconnected autonomous networks. It operates without a central governing body. However, to help ensure interoperability, several key technical and policy aspects of the underlying core infrastructure and the principal namespaces are administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in Marina del Rey, California. ICANN oversees the assignment of globally unique identifiers on the Internet, including domain names, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, application port numbers in transport protocols, and many other parameters. This seeks to create a globally unified namespace to ensure the global reach of the Internet. ICANN is governed by an international board of directors drawn from across the Internet technical, business, academic, and other non-commercial communities. However, NTIA agency of the U. S. Department of Commerce continues to have final approval over changes to the DNS root zone. This authority over the root zone file makes ICANN one of a few bodies with global, centralized influence over the otherwise distributed Internet. The definition of Internet governance is contested by differing groups across political and ideological lines. One of the main debates concerns the authority and participation of certain actors, such as; national governments, corporate entities and civil society, to play a role in the Internet’s governance.
In the article Who Controls the Internet? by Marta Cooper writes: There are huge decisions at stake over the future of Internet governance, with the battle lines being drawn between governments that see the access to information as a matter of human rights, and others that consider the control of information to be an issue for the state. Russia and China have been putting forward proposals to regulate certain areas of the web — citing the axioms of crime and security, for one. These are areas that are currently unregulated due to, as Rebecca MacKinnon writes; lack of international consensus over what those terms actually mean or over how to balance enforcement with the protection of citizens’ rights. Of course, this is not first time these two nations have banged that drum against Western domination over such institutions or asserted their national sovereignty over cyberspace. Nor is it just authoritarian regimes with patchy human rights records that are citing these as justification for national control of the web. A year ago, Brazil and South Africa called for a global Internet governance body to be located within the UN system. Opponents believe such proposals encroach upon the free and open nature of the Internet. Some believe that if governance of the Internet were in the hands of a UN body, this trend of individual nations exerting overt censorship will be strengthened… Russia’s creation last month of a blacklist of websites that promote drugs or suicide or contain porn or ‘extremist’ materials is just one example of trend in which free expression is continually chilled. China, country of 500 million Internet users, also finds sophisticated ways of censoring the web. Yet the multi-stakeholder approach is not without problems. As Katitza Rodriguez, ‘Electronic Frontier Foundation’, noted; large part of world’s population feels excluded from Internet policy making venues. While this is certainly the case, this exclusion is exacerbated when restrictive Internet policies are imposed on the world by handful of governments pursuing a national agenda. A major challenge will be diversifying the multi-stakeholder model to include more voices that are not only the most affected by but also vulnerable to repressive Internet policies. According to John Kampfner; this is just the start of the battle between those who wish to keep the Internet (relatively) free and those who will do everything in their power to reverse the process.
In the article Shut-downs Counter–The Idea Of World-Wide Web by Tom Gjelten writes: The pattern seems to be that governments (e.g., Egypt, Syria…) fear mass movements on the street, and realize that they might want to be able to shut-off Internet communication, in the country, and have started building the infrastructure that enables them to do that… The key to shutting down the Internet is building that infrastructure in such a way that the Internet service is provided by government-owned firms, subject to government orders. You could also have the service providers housed in facilities where the government could shut-off the power. Technically, it’s not hard… The whole idea of the global Internet has always been ungoverned space, where people around the world can share information freely. That principle is challenged at the ‘World Conference’ in Dubai. Among the agenda items at the conference is the notion that governments should have the right to control the Internet. According to Leslie Daigle; there are proposals on the table from nations that are actively calling for the right to be able to ‘shut-down’ their Internet infrastructure in the case of threats to national security or whatever. What is at stake here is the principle of a global Internet, as opposed to separate national Internets that governments can manipulate. We certainly fully respect the right of nations to protect their citizens… but, at the same time, I think that we wouldn’t see the full potential of the Internet if we drive towards imposing national boundaries on the Internet.
It’s a bit chaotic but sometimes chaos, even one that adherents like to claim somewhat disingenuously, as a multi-stakeholder approach is not disastrous. The Internet mostly works… it may be messy, but a lot better than the alternative, which means governments bringing the Internet under their control. The Internet’s openness fosters two of its great virtues. First, it has encouraged innovation. Second, since nobody controls the Internet, it has proved hard to censor. And despite (or perhaps because of) this lack of governance, the network has proved surprisingly resilient. More than two billion people are connected to the Internet. The many predictions of collapse have not proved correct. However, some governments are uncomfortable with the current Internet set-up. There is growing sense–and not just among the usual authoritarian suspects– that the Internet is too important, politically and economically, to continue to operate beyond remit of governments. Some governments are pushing to be more than mere stakeholders and want– the final say on important matters. China and Russia want the UN to adopt ‘International Code of Conduct for Information Security’. India, Brazil and South Africa have called for a ‘new global body to control the Internet’. Other countries want to give the UN’s agency– ITU, a supervisory role. Even Western governments, which usually favor the multi-stakeholder system, would like to rein in the ICANN, whose board decides which top-level domains to add (e.g., .com or .biz). Governments have a role to play– such as defending their citizens’ interests– but, they should not be allowed the final say over matters that would suffocate the Internet. At its base level, the Internet is run as a series of private agreements among companies. For example, businesses have all agreed that the Internet numbering system will be run by a group of regional naming entities and governed by a non-governmental entity, ICANN. Which, until relatively recently, saw little influence from non-business groups. While there are some historical exceptions to this…, the Internet has largely been governed by the businesses that run it. This has created a very libertarian governance structure in which businesses essentially negotiate to ensure that their interests are maintained in the Internet’s operation… This is an interesting time to participate and observe Internet governance. Regardless of your views of how, or if the Internet needs more regulation, it’s highly likely that, in next two years, Internet landscape will be much different than it is today… A working group established after a UN-initiated ‘World Summit on Information Society’ (WSIS) in 1988, proposed this definition: Internet governance is the development and application by governments, private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles– shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programmes– shape the evolution and use of the Internet.