Facing the Facts on Internet Governance

Having just arrived in Tunis for the WSIS, my weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, freely available version) focuses on the Internet governance issues that are likely to dominate discussions all week.  I argue that claims about a "digital Munich" and a U.N. takeover are not helpful to arriving at an appropriate solution (though based on discussions this morning it does not appear that things are moving very far away from such claims).

Instead, I suggest that three facts must be acknowledged.  First, the current system requires change as it is difficult to fault the European Union and other foreign governments for expressing discomfort with a system that grants ultimate control over the Internet to a single government.  Second, ICANN has consistently angered the Internet community by developing policies with little transparency or public consultation.  Despite some recent change, the Verisign settlement has all the hallmarks of the "old" ICANN.  

Third, creating an ICANN alternative need not lead to U.N. control over the Internet nor to greater global censorship. Contrary to many published reports, the EU has not advocated a U.N. controlled system.  Rather, it has called for the creation of a new forum built on existing structures. Although it is true that national governments would be free to establish controls over Internet use within their own borders, they already enjoy such powers.  China may have instituted troubling censorship controls, but many democratic countries have also created national rules that limit online freedoms.

If negotiators are able to shift from rhetoric to reality, a suitable compromise should be based on the principles of transparency, inclusiveness, and respect for national sovereignty.  

Transparency will facilitate the development of Internet governance policies in an open, predictable manner with input opportunities for all stakeholders.

Inclusiveness will ensure that no single government retains ultimate control over the Internet’ s core functions.  Moreover, it will require a greater voice for more than just national governments – civil society, corporate interests, and technical experts must also play an important role in the decision making process.

Respect for sovereign choice means accepting the inevitability that some governments will adopt policies that we may find objectionable since the right for democracies to make choices that support online freedoms is premised on the same principle – namely, that national governments are entitled to make their own domestic choices free from interference provided that they are consistent with international law.  

The current Internet governance system does not meet these principles.  While a positive resolution seems unlikely, this week’ s meeting in Tunis provides a long overdue opportunity to change that.


  1. Hi Michael,
    Look forward to reading your posts from Tunis.
    You can add your blog to the list of WSIS blogs (see here: ).


  2. Mitts off the Internet, Iran, China, Cuba . . .

    Dennis Byrne, a Chicago-area writer and consultant
    Published November 14, 2005

    Is the Internet so broken that it needs to be fixed by the likes of Iran, Cuba, China, Ghana and France?

    They think so, but the United States–the country that developed and now runs the Internet–doesn’t. That it’s ours explains why they and–here it comes– the United Nations think it should be theirs too. Just because.

    We’ll be getting more details on just how much control and money America is expected to cough up from the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, which will get under way in Tunis, Tunisia, on Wednesday. Just about every country attending the summit will likely show up with the expectation that they can decide how to run something that none of them owns.

    Arrogance? You bet. Dangerous? For us and the world, absolutely.

    Technically, the debate centers on ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit outfit that assigns Internet domain names worldwide. Other countries may establish their own domains (France’s is .fr), but to hook into the main network, they need to go through ICANN.

    Yes, it’s a monopoly, but how many complaints do you hear about America running it like a private club? ICANN has guaranteed an open and effective Internet, one that epitomizes freedom.

    Yet, we’re supposed to believe that the devotion of the UN and the rest of them to freedom equals our own. How symbolic that the conference is to be held in Tunis, where the government there has blocked Web sites and, according to an article last year in The New York Times, surfers look over their shoulders to see who’s watching when walking into an Internet cafe. UN Secretary General Kofi “Oil-for-Food” Annan assures us that the UN isn’t planning to “take over” the Internet. Yet he says that its governance “should be shared with the international community.” He urges “a new space for dialogue, a forum that would bring all stakeholders together to share information and best practices and discuss difficult issues but that would not have decision-making power.” Uh oh, “dialogue,” “stakeholders,” “best practices” and “difficult issues.” The correctness of the language alone warns us of what we’re in for.

    Hurricane warnings should be issued just because of the fuzziness of what they actually want to do. Annan said his own study group offers “several options for oversight arrangements, with varying degrees of government involvement and relationship to the United Nations.” No one, he insists, would have the UN take over “technical bodies now running the Internet” or have the UN create a new agency. See what I mean?

    Just for the record, Mr. Annan, a European Union official says he is “optimistic” it will have a greater role in running the Net. China wants an “appropriate specialized agency of the UN as a competent body.” Russia, Brazil and Iran demand that no single government should have a “pre-eminent role.” Ghana perceives “unanimity” in the “need for an additional body.” Et cetera.

    For those who haven’t figured it out, they’re talking about the pandemic of multilateralism–today’s model for the most ineffective, no-one-is-responsible-but-everyone-has-a-voice utopian way of running of things.

    For a clue about how well they’d run the Internet, read this news account from on their preparations for the Tunis meeting: “PrepCom III Tunis documents proved more difficult to negotiate than expected. Disagreements centered on weather [sic] text from the original Geneva declaration should remain unchanged or reinforced in the Tunis output, given that the first PrepCom had agreed not to reopen what had been adopted in Geneva.”

    America should have nothing to fear.

    Like water off a duck, these folks are impervious to warnings about tyrants and mad hatters like Korea’s Kim Jong Il having a hand in running the Internet. We’re supposed to assume that China won’t be monitoring the e-mails of dissidents or Iran won’t be on the prowl for infidels. Right, just as no one would ever expect that Libya, a citadel of liberty, would ever chair the UN Human Rights Commission.

    Some suggest (threaten?) that the United States had better invite such nations into running the freest of the world’s intellectual markets, or else they’ll leave ours and create their own. Fine. Good luck. Auf Wiedersehen.

    The Internet is a product of American smarts. It’s the embodiment of America’s superior commitment to free speech, association, religion and other rights. It was created without a phalanx of government planners, bureaucrats or enforcers. It works. Those who value this are welcome aboard our Internet. As passengers, but not as captains.

  3. Michael wrote “… ICANN has consistently angered the Internet community by developing policies with little transparency or public consultation.”

    Please name one new policy that ICANN has adopted any time in the past five years that you would say was developed without transparency or consultation. Thanks.

  4. Ned Ulbricht says:

    If negotiators want to switch from rhetoric to reality, then the reality is that I control named.conf here.