WTF? WTPF! The continuing battle over Internet governance principles

Remember all the businesses, internet techies and NGOs who were screaming about an “ITU takeover of the Internet” a year ago? Where are they now? Because this time, we actually need them.

May 14 – 21 is Internet governance week in Geneva. We have declared it so because there will be three events in that week for the global community concerned with global internet governance. From 14-16 May the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) holds its World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF). This year it is devoted to internet policy issues. With the polarizing results of the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) still reverberating, the meeting will revisit debates about the role of states in Internet governance. Next, on May 17 and 18, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet) will hold an international workshop on The Global Governance of the Internet: Intergovernmentalism, Multi-stakeholderism and Networks. Here, academics and practitioners will engage in what should be a more intellectually substantive debate on modes and principles of global Internet governance.

Last but not least, the UN Internet Governance Forum will hold its semi-annual consultations to prepare the program and agenda for its next meeting in Bali, Indonesia. The IGF consultations are relevant because, to put it bluntly, it is the failure of the IGF to bring governments, the private sector and civil society together in a commonly agreed platform for policy development that is partly responsible for the continued tension between multistakeholder and intergovernmental institutions. Whether the IGF can get its act together and become more relevant is one of the key issues going forward.

Internet Governance Principles

The Dubai WCIT meeting last year grafted an Internet governance principles debate onto negotiations over an old telecommunications treaty that had little to do with the internet. That muddled the debate considerably. This time, we are actually having a debate about Internet governance principles, specifically the role of states and intergovernmental institutions.

In preparation for the WTPF, The ITU’s Secretary-General has released a 38-page report and five “Draft Opinions” on policy. The stated aim of the WTPF report is “to provide a basis for discussion at the Policy Forum…focusing on key issues on which it would be desirable to reach conclusions.” This is what the IGF ought to be doing but was prevented from doing by key stakeholders in the Internet technical and business communities, because they wanted to make sure the IGF could not be used to challenge the status quo.

The ITU SG’s report contains a fairly balanced survey of many internet-related policy controversies. After digesting it, however, it becomes clear that its main purpose is to re-assert and strengthen the role of governments in Internet governance. In particular, it proposes  a definition of multi-stakeholderism that reserves to states a ‘sovereign right’ to make ‘public policy for the Internet;’ a definition that relegates the private sector and civil society to secondary, subordinate roles rather than empowering them as equal-status participants in new institutions for Internet governance. In keeping with this philosophy, the discussions at WTPF will be confined to ITU member states and sector members. Ordinary citizens cannot speak, they can only watch.

A flawed debate

What’s troubling about this looming debate is the intellectual weakness of so many of the supposed defenders of internet freedom. The Internet Society, ICANN and the U.S. government have increasingly re-branded Internet freedom as “The Multistakeholder Model” (TMM). So the choice we are given is not between a free Internet and a restricted, censored one, or between centralized, hierarchical internet governance and a more distributed, participatory, open and decentralized governance. No, we are given a choice between the ITU and a status quo that is vaguely defined as TMM. This not only implies that there is a single, well-defined “Multistakeholder Model” (in fact, there is not), but it conflates the results of good governance (freedom, openness, innovation, globalized connectivity, widespread access) with a particular model. It also tends to exempt many of the existing Internet governance institutions from deserved criticism and reform.

The lack of intellectual substance underlying the principles debate was played out with stark clarity in the U.S. two weeks ago, when the U.S. Congress proposed a bill “to Affirm the Policy of the United States Regarding Internet Governance.” The bill originally said

“It is the policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and to preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet.”

For reasons that we outlined in an earlier blog, the “government control” language was deemed too controversial and the bill was amended to read:

“It is the policy of the United States to preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet.”

So the United States has officially refused to endorse freedom from government control as a policy underlying its approach to Internet governance. It does not, apparently, have any principled objection to censorship, state surveillance to facilitate political manipulation of the population, over-regulation, over-taxation, economic protectionism and other destructive forms of governmental intervention. All those things are fine, apparently, as long as we manage to “preserve and advance” multistakeholder governance. What an uninspiring stance!

Why should anyone support TMM if it is devoid of any substantive meaning regarding the role of states and freedom from governmental control? TMM inspires support only if it is presented as a better alternative to a form of governance that is authoritarian, repressive, ineffective and unrepresentative of Internet users’ interests. In other words, we should support TMM only insofar as it contains and limits the power of nation-states to interfere unduly with the use and operation of the Internet, and empowers individuals worldwide to govern themselves. TMM is not an end in itself. In fact, once it is stripped of substantive policy norms, dogmatic support for TMM seems indistinguishable from unqualified support for existing Internet institutions.

As we enter into this crucial debate about principles of Internet governance, we need to have a better understanding of why global Internet governance institutions need to be shielded from national governments. Below we provide some simple bullet points as a guide to the ongoing debate over principles regarding the role of states in Internet governance.

  • The political unit – the polity – for Internet governance should be the transnational community of Internet users and suppliers, not a collection of states.

There is a fundamental, lasting conflict between territorial jurisdiction and the global Internet. There is a fundamental difference between a collection of leaders of national polities and a global polity. Though national governments can provide legitimate and rights-respecting modes of ordering society within their jurisdiction, at the transnational level there is anarchy, a space where the problems of governance are best addressed by new institutions with direct participation and more open channels of communication. National governments are not ‘just another stakeholder’ in a multistakeholder system: they represent a competing, alternative institutional framework.

  • A system of Internet governance based on states is inherently biased toward greater restriction and control of the Internet’s capabilities.

States are by nature oriented toward control. More specifically, they are concerned about maintaining their own control qua sovereign entity in a territory. They will, therefore, act to limit forms of choice and access that provide alternatives to their control of communication and information. In the international arena they will bargain with other states to maintain their security and control in relation to other states. They will not be optimal representatives of the interests of Internet users in freedom, access and openness. Ever.

  • The threats to Internet freedom posed by states are more serious than those posed by private actors.

Get over the stuff about ‘Googledom’ and ‘Facebookistan.’ It’s a cute metaphor but there is really no comparison between sovereigns and these businesses. States have the power to tax and expropriate, they have a monopoly on the use of force, they generate armed conflicts that result in war; they fund and deploy weapons. You do not choose to use their services. However much you might think you are locked in to Google, there is still a huge qualitative difference between your ability to use or not use its services and the choice you have with respect to states. This doesn’t mean that the private sector is perfect nor that there is no need for states to ever order or regulate what private actors do, but it helps to keep your priorities straight.

  • Multi-stakeholderism is not a panacea

Multistakeholderism as an ideology originated as a pragmatic means of opening up intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) to broader representation and participation. As a transitional mechanism for infusing IGOs with more information, expertise and voice, it has worked wonderfully. But it is not a well-defined, ultimate solution to the problem of Internet governance. The organically evolved Internet institutions were not originally conceived as “multistakeholder” but as private sector and contractually based governance. Some forms of Internet governance, such as the IETF, are truly bottom up, based on individualized representation, decentralized and largely voluntary in effect. Others, like ICANN, are highly centralized, largely coercive, and deeply enmeshed with states in a hybrid form of global governance. The virtues (and faults) of one should not be visited upon the other.


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