Drezner Muffs Internet Governance

Tufts political scientist Daniel Drezner has produced an appealingly simple model to explain the typology of global economic governance. You can get a quick summary of his position at Cato Unbound. His basic thesis is that global governance is still driven by the power of states — well, not states exactly, but “Great Powers.” There are at the moment only two Great Powers, the US and the EU. From this, he derives a useful typology. When the US and EU interests are congruent, and the rest of the world isn't adamantly opposed, we will get harmonized and effective global governance. When the EU and US agree, but the rest of the world won't go along, the Great Powers will avoid universal institutions and forum shop, and we will get “club” standards.

When the EU and US disagree, and there is wide divergence of interest among the rest of the world, we will get “sham” standards, putative global governance principles that don't mean anything and can't be enforced. Drezner puts our beloved Article 19 in this category. Ouch. But he's right about its effectiveness, isn't he? And when the EU and US disagree and have clusters of allies around the world we will get rival governance standards, like in the case of genetically modified foods.

The book is a notable intellectual achievment. It is worth reading for anyone seriously engaged in global governance debates. The model works about 75-80% of the time. But the chapter on Internet governance disappoints. Unfortunately for him, the model breaks down in that case. Partly it's because Drezner doesn't understand the subject matter that well. But mainly it's because there are flaws in the model that come out most clearly in the case of IG.

Drezner argues that the exercise of voice matters greatly in domestic politics, but matters not at all in global governance arenas. In Drezner’s view, domestic actors can raise the “adjustment costs” of Great Powers by resorting to the use of political voice; by which he means lobbying, political contributions, protest, voting and participation in electoral campaigns. Transnational civil society (TNCS), he seems to believe, has no such capability. But this is illogical. Yes, TNCS as such cannot vote in any and all jurisdictions. But just as economic power is concentrated on the EU and US, so is the power of TNCS. Civil society actors from the US and EU can and do send money to, attend protests of, supply information to, and otherwise support the exercise of voice by other members of TNCS who are in the targeted jurisdiction. They can generate support and publicity for electoral candidates in external jurisdictions as well.

The important insight here is that in the exercise of political voice, what matters is the institutional framework within which actors can express and actuate their preferences. Drezner is right that in the vast majority of instances of economic regulation, preferences can only be systematically aggregated and expressed through national governments. Ergo, governments still have the most influence. But this is a historically contingent fact, one that can change and to some extent is changing.

To take the most obvious example, one of Drezner’s two “great powers” is not a state at all – it is the European Union, a form of supranational economic integration among traditional nation-states. The EU is a radical and deliberate departure from the Westphalian model.

That brings us to Internet governance. Here again, in ICANN we have a radical and deliberate departure from national and inter-national governance. ICANN is a truly global and private sector-based institutional framework for economic regulation. Within it, political voice can be exercised independently of nation-states. Ergo, ICANN is dominated non-national forms of political voice: private business and global civil society. By providing an outlet for political voice that is non-national, the ICANN regime provides a magnet for transnational politics (as did WSIS).

The fact that ICANN was created by the USG and is still subject to its oversight does not alter the fact that political voice now has a global, as opposed to a national outlet. Moreover, US authority over it is highly constrained for two reasons. First, to retain the credibility and legitimacy of ICANN and to maintain requisite levels of support and participation, the USG cannot indulge in arbitrary and unilateral modification of its outcomes. If private sector actors invested large sunk costs in ICANN policy development processes only to discover that the outcome was summarily overruled by a unilateral USG decision, ICANN’s processes would collapse via exit very rapidly. Second, Drezner rightly emphasizes the substitutability of governance processes and the ways in which Great Powers garner control through forum-shopping. The very fact that ICANN and its governance model are creatures of the US, however, means that the USG’s ability to forum-shop in the Internet governance arena is limited more than it would be otherwise.

Incidentally, Drezner does not have a good grasp of the type of economic regulation that the ICANN regime represents. He repeatedly lumps it together with governance of standards. In fact, the resource allocation and assignment functions of ICANN and the standard-setting activities of IETF and W3C are completely separate things. ICANN doesn’t do technical standards; IETF and W3C don’t do resource assignment and allocation.

In his haste to grasp at any available evidence of the pre-eminence of state power, Drezner badly distorts the early history of TCP/IP’s adoption. He wants to argue that the victory of TCP/IP was a state-driven and (I can practically hear the jeers and laughter from the technical people who lived this history) a product of US-EU agreement! But the global economy’s convergence on TCP/IP had almost nothing to do with the exercise of deliberate state power or policy. In fact, the victory of the TCP/IP standard was a product, first, of a transnational group of dedicated non-state actors in research and educational institutions and the private sector; and second, a function of the technical superiority of this community’s standards and software implementations, which led to their adoption by private actors and created critical mass and network externalities. Although many of the developers in IETF benefited from government and military research funding, just as often TCP/IP progressed in spite of official US policy. Drezner overlooks the fact that the historical victory of TCP/IP was adamantly opposed by one Great Power (the Europeans and the Europe-dominated ITU) and only partially supported by the other (the U.S.). Drezner seems to be unaware of the contradiction within the US government that led one branch of the USG (Commerce) to forsake TCP/IP and promote OSI.

Even assuming that the US government could be classified as a 100% backer of TCP/IP (which it wasn’t), in Drezner’s typology the conflict between US and European visions of data communications should have produced rival standards, because there was a major divergence of interest between the Great Powers, and may have also been such a divergence between the powers and other international actors.

Drezner’s account of the origins of the ICANN regime is strangely off key. He presents it as an example of Great Power agreement but in fact ICANN was a unilateral US initiative. The Europeans went along after getting some minor concessions, but they really had no choice and the regime only marginally reflected their preferences. The fact that they later became open critics of unilateral US control of ICANN during the World Summit on the Information Society proves the point.

Drezner has no satisfactory explanation for the important role of the Internet Society in the formative stages of the ICANN regime. ISOC is a nonstate actor that incorporated the interests of (mostly American) business and the independent, nonstate technical community. It is clear from history that ISOC’s lobbying of the US government after the Green Paper played a major role in changing the preferences of the US policy makers, shifting the USG away from making specific policy decisions and towards a private sector solution that left all key policy decisions to the new private corporation, which ISOC and others fully expected to be dominated by Jon Postel and ISOC’s socio-technical network. Concessions were made to the EU interests, too, but the influence of the EU was relegated to a status that was, at best, about the same as key private sector actors.

The fundamental problem here is that the real story behind internet governance contradicts Drezner’s basic model of great power influence. The specific historical circumstances of the Internet’s rise empowered certain nonstate actors and gave the US unilateral global power. The USG’s contractual control over the administrators of the DNS and IP address roots allowed it to pursue its policy preferences relatively independently of the preferences of other nation-states. As a result, it was able to create a truly global regime dominated by non-state actors and reserve all political oversight to itself. This is indeed a new world order, at least in the realm of information and communications. This is all laid out in my book Ruling the Root, which Drezner cites but does not seem to have understood fully.

Since Drezner misses the true nature and political origins of the ICANN regime, it is not surprising that he has absolutely no explanation for the US-EU split over ICANN during WSIS. Based on his theory, the split between US and Europe should have led to rival standards, i.e., EU should have erected an alternative to ICANN's global governance regime and supported an alternate root. It did not.

In sum, there is a dynamic, path-dependent element to the global Internet governance regime that Drezner’s model does not capture. Only this can explain the rise of the IETF, W3C and ICANN. Even if states acceded to their authority through some kind of after-the-fact “delegation” or decided that those nonstate actors in some ways served their interests, it does not fully fit within the thesis that governments are driving everything and the influence of civil society and the private sector are peripheral. And the fact that no state, not even the Bush administration, would threaten the massive economic benefits of e-commerce and Internet-based communication by fragmenting the Internet shows that states really are constrained by the genies they may have once agreed to let out of the bottle.

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