Speaking at a Technology University of Delft conference on the internationalization of infrastructures, Professor Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger made some unique and provocative observations about the future of the ICANN tether to the U.S. government. Mayer-Schoenberger was trying to predict the position of the three main players: the EU, the US and China.
The EU, he said, was typically about 4 years behind. It was now willing to accept and confirm the American decision to privatize ICANN; moreover, it no longer has any substantive policy position but is focused entirely on structures and processes. Whereas the old EU of WSIS tried to make the end to end principle part of the Internet’s global governance, or tried to stand for privacy and other substantive rights, it now has nothing to contribute but oversight structures and appeals processes. He also noted that the EU was edging away from multi-stakeholderism toward traditional multi-lateralism: a “20th Century Multilateralism redux.”
But just as the Europeans come to accept a privatized ICANN the U.S., he said, is starting to question it. The Obama administration, he predicted, will “re-nationalize” ICANN. To him re-nationalize meant two things simultaneously: first, that the U.S. “doesn’t give a damn” about internationalizing it; second, that the US government may be inclined to reverse the privatization and bring ICANN closer to the U.S. government to supervise and regulate. The U.S. position, like the European one, was a repeat of 20th Century ideas: a “New Deal redux.”
As for China, he called their position a “Sun Tzu realism” in which Multi-lateralism replaces Multi-stakeholderism, but the multilateralism occurs on several different layers. All processes and institutions are changeable, nothing is set in stone. China, too, prefers to de-emphasize or evade talk of human rights, preferring “ethics” and “order”. (He got some flak on this, as others, including myself, characterized China as basically nothing more than a pure, traditional sovereigntist.)
The bottom line, for Mayer-Schoenberger, was a rather pessimistic outlook in which the following trends can be seen:
– Greater divergence, not convergence, among the big players on the appropriate structures and processes;
– A tilt towards abandoning Multi-stakeholderism
– A convergence on the irrelevance of substantive policies. There is no room for rights, no guaranteed values in the discourse, just structures.
VMS is Professor at the National University of Singapore and Director of the Center for Information and Innovation Policy there.