Touré’s ITU still pushing for an Internet counter-revolution

The speech by the International Telecommunication Union’s Hamadoun Tourébrought the ongoing power struggle over Internet governance into the open. Toure spoke openly of the ongoing “war” between ICANN and the ITU. He demanded a stronger role for governments in ICANN, dismissing ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) as “cosmetic” (quite wrong, as I will show later). He correctly accused the UN Internet Governance Forum of “avoiding issues” but also rather harshly dismissed it as a “waste of time.” I commend Secretary General Touré for his forthrightness, which is all too rare in international organizations. Unfortunately, his blunt speech supports the wrong cause.

 

Let me be blunt, too. Mr. Secretary-General, this is all about competition for power, isn’t it? Your international organization lost a lot of authority over the communications industry when the Internet emerged, and now you are trying to get some of it back. The same goes for the governments who constitute the GAC. And of course, for the U.S. government, it’s all about holding on to the special powers it got because of its historical control over the contractors who ran the early internet.

 

There is a question you all leave unanswered. Not only unanswered, but unasked, because you and the others involved in this power game are so focused on who has authority that you rarely think about whose interests that authority reflects and how it would be used to improve anything. So here’s the question: why should the average internet user or the average person who doesn’t even have internet access yet, give a damn about whether you and other governments get more power?

 

As far as I can tell, the only thing the ITU is interested in is in rewiring Internet standards to enable oligopolistic or monopolistic telecom companies, and their governments, to gain more control over users both economically and politically. Why would the public be interested in supporting that?

 

When was the last time, Mr. Toure, that the ITU proposed any policies or technical standards that would increase the freedom, flexibility, and affordability of the Internet?  When the ITU was contending for control over IP address allocation, I was sympathetic, and asked the people involved just what they planned to do with that policy authority. The answer, astoundingly, was that they had no idea. Not the foggiest idea. They just wanted to control it. They promised to figure out the “what for” later.

 

I have watched governments increase their power over ICANN – including especially the U.S., which abandoned its commitment to an autonomous, nongovernmental coordination during the .xxx debacle – for about 8 years now. You are wrong about the GAC being cosmetic, Mr. Toure. In December 2002, GAC advice was written into the ICANN bylaws as being binding to listen to and respond to. De facto, ICANN’s President and staff make GAC policy advice – especially that emanating from the U.S. Commerce Department – a parameter that bounds policy making by business and civil society. In the .xxx affair, ICANN abandoned its defined process and turned over contract negotiations directly to the GAC, at the behest of the U.S. The European Union got a new TLD just because it wanted one, and maintainced the fiction that it was a ccTLD even though it was not on the ISO-3166 list. In the new ccTLD fast track process, governments demanded, and will get, a whole new range of multilingual domains and probably will not pay any fees or be bound to any meaningful contract. No way anyone in their right mind can say that governments are helpless, cosmetic players in ICANN.

 

Unfortunately, this growing government intervention has not been a progressive force. Have governments intervened to balance the demands of civil society and consumers against the powerful private sector copyright, trademark and e-commerce interests who have converged on ICANN? Hell no. All they have done is grab resources for themselves.

 

Here is, as far as I am concerned, the sum total of traditional government’s involvement in ICANN:

They have asserted control over ccTLD administration. Have there been any amazing new developments or improvements in ccTLD registry services since then? Not that I can tell.

 

They have insisted on the right to use Internet administration to spy indiscriminately on its users (Whois, etc.)

 

They have reserved to themselves geographic names in new TLDs. Yet, they have no real claim to these names in international law, and these claims pre-empt all kinds of potential uses regardless of whether they are harmful or not. Their claims are sort of like the King of Spain declaring that he owned Mexico because he landed an army there. They got reserved names because they wanted them and had the power to assert them. To national governments cyberspace is just a new arena for new forms of colonialism.

Let me continue to be blunt, because you and other government officials badly need to hear it. Yes, the U.S. government is completely hypocritical about ICANN. The U.S. remains in control behind the scenes and exploits its control in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways for the benefit of itself and various other commercial interests. But to solve this problem, we need to get governments further away from ICANN, we don’t need 220 additional governments.

 

It’s unfortunate that “multi-stakeholderism” (MS) as a legitimizing principle has become so widely accepted, mainly through endless repetition. The problem with the MS principle is that it avoids talking about the relative power each stakeholder group has. Currently, civil society and to a lesser extent business stakeholders involved in Internet governance are increasingly like chickens thrown into a multistakeholder henhouse with a bunch of foxes. The rhetoric of MS can disarm civil society from resisting these encroachments. We need to think more carefully about what governments are really supposed to do, and not just give them a blanket right to “be involved” in areas that might, and probably should, remain free of them.

 

4 comments

  1. Anonymous

    Sorry, I can't make an opinion without looking at the primary source of information, i.e. the very text of the ITU chief speech. Maybe I'm not alone, could you share an URL with us?
    Thanks in advance.

  2. Anonymous

    I totally agree with Milton's comments and I would like, at this stage, to add some more thoughts to the Secretary's-General speech, which has caused more anxiety than it should have really.
    It is indeed an issue of power. The ITU, over the past few years and especially being the institution that orchestrated the Internet Governance debate, has seen a lot of its influence on the Internet being lost. It is not surprising, therefore, that they want to get back some of the power that they were holding and have a more active voice in the Internet Governance debate. They go though through the wrong channels. If the ITU was really interested in opening the channels of communication with ICANN or with any other of the stakeholders for that matter, they wouldn't choose the ICANN meeting to do so. Rather, they would address these issues to more appropriate forums, like the IGF, which was designed to air such concerns and where more stakeholders participate. I cannot really understand why the Secretary-General chose the ICANN meeting to make a blunt statement like “the IGF …sometimes becomes a waste of time”.
    Irrespective of whether this statement has indeed some truth in it or not, I don't believe that Mr. Toure is saying something that we do not already know. At the same time, Mr. Toure is categorically denying that the ITU seeks to control the Internet. In my ears, this is what exactly he is saying – let the ITU, which by the way is one of the oldest UN body to take over. Mr. Toure – years do not necessarily make experience and the current state of the Internet has proven that it does not respond well to hardcore and cumbersome government intervention. The strong sense of sovereignty and jurisdiction might actually create more obstacles than provide solutions and we have already seen that happening during the WSIS process and the IGFs. The current state of the Internet needs more voices and less bureaucratic proceedures.
    Mr. Toure's speech is a great advertisment of the ITU. It repeatedly states how old the ITU is, the involvement of governments and civil society and the job that it has done with other organisations to promote standards. But, the Internet Governance is not all about standards. It is also about more substantial issues that fall outside the ITU's mandate.
    Milton is correct in asserting that legitimization does not automatically derived from multi-stakeholderism. We need to ensure, taking the lead from the WSIS principles, that all actors participate in an equal footing. We need to establish which is the permissible scope of action of each of the stakeholders and then determine exactly what their role is within Internet Governance. We need to ensure that people entrust that all stakeholders in Internet Governance will work together – this is where legitimacy in multi-stakeholderism lies. Within the international context legitimacy is: “a property of a rule or a rule-making institution which itself exerts a pull towards compliance on those addressed normatively because those addressed believe that the rule has come into being and operates in accordance with generally accepted principles of right process” (T.M. Franck, The Power of Legitimacy among nations, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 16).
    Finally, using the influence of GAC in ICANN as an example is a cheap shot. No one is saying that ICANN is perfect and that the US influence is not something of concern. But as Milton has very accurately described, the role of GAC has been increased over the past few years. The simple Internet user is not interested in any of these political agendas. The simple Internet user does not care who has the power; instead, they want to see a structure that will protect us and our children and will use the Internet for social and economic fruition.
    What I am trying to say really is that the ITU and ICANN should stop trying to show who possesses more influence. This is nor the time nor the place for excercising your power. It is a time to offer solutions.

  3. Anonymous

    Hi Milton,
    Yes but …
    Mr Touré speech gives a fresh perspective on the power struggle over ICANN among governments. Milton, you seem to prefer a power struggle between multi-stakeholder-ism and unspecified (“any”) government oversight, a power struggle in which your arguments would have more weight.
    The battleground on which Mr Touré plays has different rules, i.e. diplomacy, international treaties, formal delegations from constitution-based powers of states, than the ones advocated by civil society, i.e. what I would describe as a beauty contest of legitimacy based on open communications as a fairly recent global change. Granted to your point, there are brilliant success stories in the civil society global perspective: IETF, ISOC, FSF, you name them, and even ICANN in some sense (I have little respect for ICANN processes as I don't think they have any chance of becoming into some equilibrium state which is required for lasting influence).
    At the end of my intuitive analysis (I don't have time to formalize it further), your campaign look somehow comfortable that a single government, coincidentally the one from your own country, has a strong position in this other battlefield that you don't want to become prime time. There are countless formal foreign affairs rules on which open networks rely, and which civil society quietly takes for granted as a foundation for a new set of rules. Just one big example: try to redesign ICANN contracts with TLDs, registrars, and root operators (they are all on their web site) in the absence of the core assumption of US jurisdiction for interpretation and US judicial system for litigation settlement and enforcement – a government-devoid ICANN would require them.
    So, I welcome Mr Touré's speech as it brings in prime discussion time the power struggle among governments, as much as I am skeptical about the legitimacy of unchecked government controls on basis of cybercrime or whois or what not.
    Is there a possibility for an Internet charter of rights to turn into a reality in this context? I already thought the question could not be answered without careful attention to treaty-based organizations governance. The ITU chief reminded the audience that such governance proved useful in the past.
    I hope the above is well articulated.
    – Thierry Moreau