The IGF and the Internet Society-ITU rivalry

This year’s IGF was characterized by intensified rivalry between the backers of the Internet Society/ICANN and the supporters of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which would like to contest the former’s hegemony over Internet names and number governance. These two organizations represent larger differences over governance modes and models. ISOC and ICANN represent a regime that is transnational in scope and based on private sector organizations; ITU represents a telecommunications governance regime that is international and centered on nation-states. ISOC and ICANN are close to the U.S. government, and find their strongest support in the U.S. and the developed countries of Europe (although they have strong cadre in developing country technical communities as well); ITU draws its strongest support from developing country governments and their telephone companies, especially China, the Arab states, Russia and Brazil. ICANN is young and growing in size and revenue; the ITU is old and its budget is static or declining.

Many workshops and main sessions of the Forum get sucked into this polarity one way or the other, especially if they discuss critical internet resources.

Talk to an ISOC/ICANN supporters and one will get the impression they are engaged in a fight for their life. The incredibly aggressive way in which ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom interrupted and almost shouted down Dr. Sures Ramadass, a technical expert from Malaysia who wrote a report for the ITU calling for ICANN-ITU competition in the distribution of address resources, exemplifies the intensity with which ICANN supporters and staff approach these confrontations. They convey the impression that they are barely succeeding in staving off imminent takeover of Internet resources by hordes of ITU-inspired orcs. I am skeptical of this. In fact, before this year, the rivalry was pathetically one-sided.

Here’s the score card, in case you don’t recall. In 2004, the Working Group on Internet Governance made a series of recommendations regarding Internet governance arrangements to be presented to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). None of them mentioned the ITU or called for an expansion of its role. Ouch. At the final WSIS summit in 2005, the ISOC/ICANN supporters successfully repelled the state-centric forces from eliminating or imposing “political oversight” on ICANN. All they got, instead, was the IGF. In an indication of what a great “victory” this was for the ITU, the speech of the outgoing ITU Director, Utsumi, before the first IGF in Athens compared himself to Socrates being forced to drink hemlock.

The ISOC/ICANN supporters initially opposed the creation of the IGF. However, they quickly learned that they could make the Forum into a vehicle for promoting and propagating their views about Internet governance. How effectively they use that vehicle was driven home to me last week at the Forum. As I arrived at the conference hotel for a breakfast with someone I walked passed a gigantic table, where a congregation of about 30 ICANN board members, staff, ISOC supporters and ambassadors were planning and coordinating the day’s activities. ISOC/ICANN has all but captured the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) and holds great influence over the Secretariat. The ITU/nation-state supporters, on the other hand, are generally uncoordinated, and have very weak support among business and civil society. They don't know how to play the multistakeholder game as well. Consequently, they have become less supportive of the Forum, with China openly saying that there is no need to continue it and other states trying to pull it into a UN Bureau so that governments will dominate the Forum’s Secretariat.

We have two observations about this rivalry. First, while assertions of power over the Internet by nation-states constitute an important and growing threat to the Internet’s freedom and security, that threat is not really centered in the ITU. It comes, rather, directly from authoritarian nation-states and from authoritarian policies enacted by democratic states on a more piecemeal basis. Western Europe now seems to be as interested in blocking and filtering the Internet as China is, and Internet surveillance policies in the U.S. are extensive and sweeping. Copyright infringement is on the verge of causing as much Internet regulation as censors. Another important thing to keep in mind is that the ISOC/ICANN crowd has shown repeatedly that it is willing to cut deals with governments and big business which institutionalize controls and restrictions similar to those sought by nation-states. Just think of the current proposals for a uniform rapid suspension system allowing trademark owners to take down domains, the unbalanced UDRP, Whois, etc.

The ISOC/ICANN vs. ITU rivalry, therefore, is not a contest between a liberal, open Internet and a closed, regulated free one. It is primarily an organizational rivalry over who will emerge as the dominant institutional arena for governing Internet identifiers. Conceived this way, the battle is already pretty much over if you ask me, with ISOC/ICANN dominant if not victorious.

It’s worth recalling that back in 1997 the ITU and the ISOC were a lot friendlier with each other. In 1996-97 they teamed up to create something called the generic Top Level Domain Memorandum of Understanding (gTLD-MoU) in an attempt to privatize the domain name system without the approval or participation of the government. I cannot resist calling it the Hitler-Stalin pact of the Internet, although comparing either organization to those two totalitarian monsters is of course unfair and massively exaggerates to make a (hopefully humorous) point. That pact was of course shot down, but it shows that the two sides can work perfectly well together when their organizational ambitions coincide.

The bottom line here is that academic and civil society participants in Internet governance need to maintain a critical stance towards both ISOC/ICANN and ITU and remain independent. Both organizations have, potentially, a lot of good to contribute; both can make mistakes and advocate or implement bad policies in an attempt to strengthen themselves. At any rate the real governance battle is not between ICANN and ITU but between the nation-state system and the global, open Internet.

6 comments

  1. Anonymous

    I think you are right in many respects, that civil society needs to take a neutral careful stance with between both poles in the battle between ICANN/ISOC and ITU. Neither yet shown a strong commitment to civil society and non commercial interests and neither has shown any reliability as a force against the suppression of liberties on the Internet. Neither has shown itself friend of socially positive causes, yet both are strong supporters of business and government (the only real difference being which of these two they put first).

  2. Anonymous

    Cannot believe this @miltonmueller incredibly aggressive way in which Beckstrom interrupted and almost shouted down Dr.Ramadass on ICANN-ITU.

    If you are right in what you are saying here, and how you are saying this, this seems to spell trouble ahead.

    I am glad you did not lose any luggage on the way back from Egypt. Still, I wonder if that Twitter comment was inspired by another Twitter comment on that very topic.

  3. Anonymous

    “the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which would like to contest the former’s hegemony over Internet names and number governance.”
    I also see ITU trying to regain its place on communication standardisation, function which is mainly done nowadays by IETF/IEEE as everything is Internet related today.

  4. Anonymous

    The ITU is desperately trying to find its niche and justify its existence in the new telecommunications scene. They lost terrain in the standards arena to the IETF and the predominance of TCP/IP, in the local and metropolitan area networks to IEEE and Ethernet, voice communications to VOIP, in content to W3C, and the administration of Internet resources such as address and numbers to ICANN. This represents a tectonic displacement for an organization that have been entrenched in telecommunications since its inception as the International Telegraph Union in 1865. We need both ICANN and the ITU, and I agree that not ICANN nor the ITU provide the all inclusive framework for the grand discussion about Internet Governance. To be frank not even the IGF does, the plenary sessions are a constant parade of different groups making statements and where everybody talks but nobody listens, each one – as somebody regularly says – “in their respective roles”.
    Regards
    Jorge

  5. Anonymous

    There is an ancient World Map of the Telegraph from 1900. It looks the same as the current Internet Map.
    The ITU has been involved in making the Peering Agreements viable. With a cut-throat, race to the bottom,
    commodity Internet and pricing, there will be no incentive to route packets to third world countries
    like Canada and Mexico.

  6. Anonymous

    It's a fact that most of the undersea cables practically follow the same routes as a century ago, since in the past century no new continents have been created or disappeared.
    If you compare a 1901 map with a 2008 map you will notice a substantial increase of undersea capacity on the pacific ocean routes. While an important actor, much of this evolution have not been driven by the ITU.
    Regards
    Jorge