Top Internet Governance Issues to Watch in 2009

Here it is: IGP's contribution to the beginning of the year forecasting. Note well: these are not predictions of outcomes but designations of critical areas of change and decision in Internet governance, where the outcome is still unknown. We are sure we've overlooked some critical arenas — use our comments to tell us what they are!

1. ICANN and its relationship to the USG
A shift from Republican Party conservative nationalism to Democratic Party liberal internationalism, along with the expiration of the Joint Project Agreement between ICANN and the U.S. Commerce Department on September 30, makes 2009 a watershed year for ICANN’s tether to the U.S. government. Moves toward internationalization by the Obama administration could break policy logjams that date back to 2003 (if not earlier); on the other hand, reassertion of the status quo would put an end to the original Clinton Administration plans for a “transition” once and for all. As Harold Feld put it in a notable blog post, the USG has to “quit playing games” and fish or cut bait on the “transition” to nongovernmental adminstration of DNS. A lot of subtle repercussions will be felt either way; for example, international acceptance of a method for signing the root so that secure DNS can be widely implemented could depend on how the ICANN-USG relationship is reformed. It is also likely that there will be agency turf battles over ICANN policy within the US government.

2. Deep Packet Inspection in the service of Internet control
Concerns about copyright protection, terrorism, illegal content, efficient bandwidth management, intrusion detection, botnets and viruses are all converging to tempt various parties to experiment with Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). DPI is the technology that automatically opens all your packets in real time and looks inside them before it decides whether to forward them or not. Will 2009 be the year that DPI starts to settle into place as an integrated infrastructure of Internet control – the ultimate man-in-the-middle solution to Internet governance problems? Or, conversely, will it be the year that we learn it doesn’t really work as well as we think it does; that it can’t handle the capacity of higher speed networks; that principled ISPs and digital rights groups take DPI off the agenda by highlighting its hostile relationship to privacy and network neutrality? The Comcast incident and the Belgian court case were only the opening shots in this battle. DPI vendors take note: this is the year we will find out which of these scenarios is true (or, if we land somewhere in the middle, we should get a good glimpse of which end of the spectrum we end up on).

3. The new Internet Protocol: Can the Net reproduce itself?
Forget all that talk about a “clean slate Internet;” we're having enough trouble implementing a new IP standard that developed a decade ago. 2009 will mark a turning point in the most important technical standards migration on the Internet since its opening to the public in 1991 – the transition from IP version 4 to IP version 6. IPv4 is the original Internet protocol but it is running out of address space. IP version 6 is a new standard with a much bigger address space, but it’s incompatible with the older standard and has no major advantages over IPv4 other than its more capacious address space. For many years incompatibility, the lack of a reliable gateway protocol making v4 and v6 compatible, and the additional expense, risk and trouble of shifting to a new standard have created a “you first” game in which ISPs wait for someone else to take the lead. If that pattern breaks this year we could see a stampede toward IPv6. But if the holding pattern doesn’t break, then the regional address registries will be forced to make major changes in their policies to head off IPv4 address shortages in 2010 and 2011: legalized address transfer markets, tougher reclamation policies, pressure on pre-RIR legacy holders, higher fees, reservation policies, and so on.

4. ICANN’s abysmal new gTLD process
On December 18, the U.S. government gave ICANN a Christmas present: a letter containing a thorough trashing of its plan to open the DNS root to lots of new top level domains. The U.S. letter joined a chorus of big business and trademark interests who have always been against any new TLDs, but it also made some valid criticisms about the proposal’s incredible attempt to set up ICANN as global arbiter of “morality and public order,” suggesting that that function might be better left to local laws. Will the U.S. move succeed in intimidating the ICANN Board? It already seems to have produced a 4 month delay. Bad as the policy is, derailing it opens up a huge can of worms. While no one will rush to passionately defend a policy that institutes global censorship of TLD strings, imposes outrageously high entry costs, and gives any organized group in the world a hecklers veto, the fact remains that this Rube Goldberg contraption emerged (more or less legitimately) from ICANN’s policy process. The policy took full account of the “Principles regarding new TLDs” given to ICANN by its Governmental Advisory Committee (which includes the US) and bent over backwards to accommodate the concerns of the trademark owners who are now complaining about it. And what about the long-delayed internationalized domain names? If ICANN can’t close the deal on this one, people would have to start asking whether ICANN can succeed in making public policy about anything related to DNS or internet identifiers; one would have to conclude that there is something fundamentally unworkable about ICANN.

5. IGF renewal
By the end of this year it should be clear whether the Internet Governance Forum was a short, not too unpleasant footnote in the history of Internet governance or a relatively permanent feature of it going forward. The World Summit on the Information Society’s Tunis Agenda gave the IGF a five-year initial life span; by the end of 2010, the UN Secretary-General must “examine the desirability of the continuation of the Forum, in formal consultation with Forum participants,” and “make recommendations to the UN Membership in this regard.” This means that consultations on the future of IGF will take place in the second half of 2009, and that the issue of continuation will probably form a major part of the discussions at the Cairo IGF in November 2009. By the end of this year if should be clear whether anyone out to kill the IGF or not. We suspect that the IGF will be renewed; the more important issue, of course, is whether the IGF evolves into a more influential and meaningful forum. We have published some analysis of that question.

6. VoIP and the mobile Internet
2009 will be the year that the inherent tension between the broadband mobile internet and traditional mobile voice revenues becomes fully evident and starts to have major effects. The maturation of open source mobile platforms, such as G1 Android or OpenMoko, coupled with the spread of WiFi compatible phones, high-speed mobile networks, the explosion of the netbooks market this year and the greater adoption of data communication capabilities by consumers in developed countries, all will force mobile carriers to make a fateful choice. Either adopt net neutrality principles and allow widespread adoption of VOIP clients (e.g., Fring), or depart from NN principles and try to preserve the remnants of their higher-margin circuit-switched voice traffic. That policy issue will play out more in national arenas than in global ones, which means that the results will be diverse, but an increasingly globalized advocacy of NN as a principle could play an important role in the mix.

7. Can the ITU World Telecom Policy Forum revive WSIS?
The ITU is as determined as ever to retain its relevance in an Internet-dominated world. Its World Telecom Policy Forum, to be held in Lisbon, Portugal April 22-24, 2009, plans to deal extensively with Internet governance issues. If the ITU is smart, it will try to open these proceedings to civil society and lure other new actors into its venues, actors who may be less than thrilled with the progress of the Internet Governance Forum and less than supportive of ICANN. The WTPF could become a place for governments and other actors unsure about or dissatisfied with the IGF/ICANN-centered regime to air their grievances and attempt to develop an alternative center of policy discourse, if not policy power. Can the ITU really become multistakeholder? Granted, that will take more than one year…

8. Will Governments make ISP intermediaries for security?
Over the past years, there have been increasing calls for governments to put more pressure on ISPs to improve their security practices. After years of focusing on end users with awareness raising campaigns and education, it has become clear that such efforts cannot keep up with the changes in internet abuse and cybercrime. Now the focus is shifiting to intermediaries. ISPs are at the top of the list. The Dutch regulator OPTA threatened to introduce regulation, then backtracked and talked about a quality mark or certification scheme. The British House of Lords made similar recommendations. In Australia, ACMA already has enforceable codes of conducts for ISPs. It also notifies ISPs directly about abuse and requires them to act on these notifications. These examples are just the first steps of governments exploring what role they can have or want to have when it comes to internet security.

2 comments

  1. Anonymous

    I should be doing something else, but I can't resist asking this basic question about Internet governance:
    How can any alternate institutional arrangement provide the assurance of continued price regulation for the DNS name registration market?
    The recent letter (2008/12/18) from DOC to ICANN on the new gTLD process contains a copy of a letter from the Anti-trust Division in the DOJ, unveiling a competition analysis of the name registration market.
    Basic facts, looking at the big picture:
    (1) The price regulation for the name registration market is a foremost result of the ICANN oversight by the USG.
    (2) The DOC contracts, notably the collaborative agreement, are instrumental in this price regulation effectiveness — this is verified according to the above letters at the time of the ICANN-Verisign litigation settlement and verified nowadays with the DOJ demand for price regulation provisions in new gTLD contracts.
    (3) Arguably, the .com registration prices would increase significantly if Verisign was not constrained by enforceable price regulation mechanisms.
    We just saw how the DOJ anti-trust division applies the USG executive branch power. It appears effective in preventing blatant market abuses, but presumably not optimal in an economic sense.
    I don't see relevance in the argument that price regulation addresses only the needs of trademark owners, and that Internet governance arrangements should be driven by a wider set of considerations. Perhaps “survey-stlouiscollege-1995.com” benefits as much as “boeing.com” from regulated name registration market, but that's also almost irrelevant. The challenge is to propose institutional arrangements that provide an equivalent predictability and enforceability of price regulation. Plus the many other potential benefits of better governance.
    I doubt the challenge can be met. A direct confrontation of the USG oversight of ICANN would thus be counterproductive. Other avenues should be preferred.