A United Nations Committee for Internet-Related Policies? A fair assessment

The government of India has taken the next step in evolving the IBSA proposal for a new UN body on Internet governance. It has proposed an entity that combines the functions of the Internet Governance Forum and some of the revenues of ICANN in a structure that puts governments on top. It is called the UN Committee for Internet-related policies (CIRP).

Of course, the CIRP is highly controversial, and is raising fears that the “UN is out to take over the Internet.” Given the inherent tension between networks and states, that is not a threat to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, it is important to understand precisely what was proposed, and careful description seems to be lacking from some of the current dialogue. So this article tries to provide an unbiased analysis of what CIRP is, and isn’t.

The CIRP would consist of representatives of 50 states “chosen” or “elected” – the ambiguity here is interesting – in a way designed to ensure fair geographic representation. In a pointed contrast to ICANN, which puts governments in an advisory committee and lets civil society and business groups develop policy, the India proposal puts CIRP’s policy proposal-making functions firmly in the hands of the governments in the committee and creates four “Advisory Groups” (AG) that would “advise and assist” them. This inversion of the current multi-stakeholder model would include one AG for civil society, one for business, one for the technical and academic community, and one for “international and inter-governmental organizations.” Why CIRP, which consists of governments that directly delegate authority to IGOs and IOs, needs to have an advisory committee for intergovernmental organizations as well is not explained.

Just in case there is no doubt about who is in charge, the CIRP proposal carefully adheres to the language of the WSIS Tunis Agenda when referring to nongovernmental actors. That is, it is careful to always say that the stakeholders in the Advisory Groups would be confined to “their respective roles,” which reserves to governments the authority to make policy, and relegates business to “technical and operational” matters and civil society to an even less well-defined “community support” role.

While it clearly inverts the existing relationship between state actors and nonstate actors in existing transnational internet governance institutions, the CIRP cannot be accurately described as a lunge for direct regulatory power over the Internet. The proposal states that it will only “report directly to the UN General Assembly annually” and “present recommendations in the areas of policy and implementation for consideration, adoption and dissemination to all relevant intergovernmental bodies and international organizations.” As CIRP is not a new international treaty, the UN General Assembly would have no more authority over the Internet than it does now. Recommendations are not laws. As one Indian civil society advocate of the proposal put it, there is not much difference between CIRP’s role and that of the OECD. CIRP looks more like a government-centered IGF – one that is empowered to make recommendations – than a global Internet Czar.

The CIRP proposal is presented as an addition to, not a replacement for, the IGF. It says it would take IGF reports “as inputs for consideration of the CIRP.” Reflecting the sovereignty-oriented states disappointment with IGF, however, it goes on to note that “an improved and strengthened lGF that can serve as a purposeful body for policy consultations and provide meaningful policy inputs to the CIRP, will ensure a stronger and more effective complementarity between the CIRP and the IGF.” In effect, the CIRP advocates are saying that the IGF will become irrelevant if it is not strengthened. CIRP deliberations would occupy two weeks in Geneva. It is hard to imagine a world in which both IGF and CIRP are meaningful fora in the longer term. CIRP would have a “Research Wing”, which could be seen as an attempt by the UN system to build capacity for policy and technical analysis that would make its Committee members, hopefully, better informed.

There is still a fundamental ambiguity in the proposal, however. The proposal says that CIRP would  be funded through a combination of general UN funds and “drawing from the domain registration fees collected by various bodies involved in the technical functioning of the Internet, especially in terms of names and addresses.” So either it is proposing to add a new tax on users’ name and address registrations (in addition to the fees already charged by ICANN) or it is proposing to tax or get donations from ICANN. Or, perhaps, it is proposing to take over ICANN.

Here we get to the key ambiguity of the proposal. The Annex to the Indian delegate’s speech contains a reasonably well-developed but compact description of the CIRP. That Annex does not say anything about taking over, “coordinating” or “supervising” existing Internet institutions. On the other hand, the main text of the speech, in its description of the mandate of the CIRP, still includes the original 7-point program put forward by IBSA which includes, among other things, the ambitious claim that it will “coordinate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the Internet, including global standards setting.” Is this just a leftover from the original IBSA proposal (which was not well received by most of the world’s Internet community) that was not properly updated? Or (given the assumption in the Annex that domain name and address registration fees will be available to CIRP) does it presume that CIRP somehow has assumed authority over ICANN, IETF, and the RIRs?

It was very unintelligent of the CIRP proponents to leave that question open. If a takeover is contemplated, the IBSA advocates have made a colossal political blunder; the proposal will be dead on arrival and they will have given its opponents all the ammunition they need to shoot the whole thing down.

If, on the other hand, the CIRP is just looking for donations from ICANN and the RIRs, we may be looking at the emergence of a two-track Internet governance regime, one for states and one for networks. In track one, the organically developed Internet institutions (ODII) are left in place to handle the real techno-governance decisions through multistakeholder methods; in track two a parallel system of intergovernmental policy deliberation is set up with some marginal participation by the rest of us.

If that two-track concept gets off the ground, the funds-rich ODII might in fact be willing to give some of our domain registration and address fees to CIRP. As monopolies they have a large amount of surplus funds and historically, they have demonstrated a ready willingness to use those funds to buy political cover. In other words, what we may be seeing here is not a death-struggle between polar choices of governance regimes, but a parting of the ways between the governments and the ODII as they more or less get out of each other’s way.

That outcome would be even more interesting if the parting of the ways would also lead to the dissolution of ICANN’s dysfunctional and increasingly irritating Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). The governments who are not willing to be led by the nose by the US-UK-EC axis which completely dominates the GAC would simply leave the ICANN environment for CIRP. GAC would be exposed even more clearly for what it is, namely a thinly veiled cover for the US and its close allies to exercise special powers over Internet governance.

Comments are closed.