What do the Wall Street Journal and the ITU have in common?

It’s Hallowe’en and, appropriately enough, there are scary things going on in Internet governance land. Let’s begin with the western world’s favorite Internet bogeyman, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The ITU is holding its quadrennial Plenipotentiary in Busan, South Korea. Booo!

It is now impossible for the ITU to have a major meeting without the topic of Internet governance featuring prominently. The Internet is haunted by the ghost of telecommunications’ past. Thanks to telecom service trade liberalization and the deregulation of information services it is the Internet, not traditional telecommunications, that forms the present and future of communications, and even the governmental delegations who attend UN meetings have figured this out. These neoliberal trends (and yes, my neo-Marxist friends, it’s time you faced the fact that the internet is entirely a product of neoliberal policies) have undermined the regulatory authority of national governments over telecommunications and elevated the policy making role of markets, technologists, business and civil society instead. But it isn’t just Russia, China and other foreign “bad guys” who want to challenge this trend – the neoconservative and nationalist Wall Street Journal seems to have joined their ranks. (Everything is so….neo these days, isn’t it?)

Among dozens of other proposals, the government of India has submitted a truly abysmal resolution on “The ITU’s role in Realizing a Secure Information Society.” India is concerned that the Internet users are not “traceable” enough. Security, to the Indian state, means giving national governments more control over our communications (just as it does to the WSJ). India is concerned that national governments do not control Internet naming and addressing. It wants the Secretary-General of the ITU to “develop an IP address plan from which IP addresses of different countries are easily discernable…” In short, it wants to re-engineer the Internet addressing protocol to make the transnational system of IP address allocation exactly like telephone numbers, nationally bounded and subject to national control. It also wants to re-engineer internet routing. It calls on the ITU to “develop and recommend public telecom network architecture which ensures that… traffic originating and terminating in the country remains     within the country.” We can call them Internet neo-nationalists.

So that leads to the question posed in the title: What does the ITU have in common with the Wall Street Journal? The answer is that both, apparently, seem bent on asserting traditional forms of state authority over it.

At some point in the past year the Wall Street Journal has made a decision that it does not want ICANN to be set free of U.S. government control. Sometimes these attacks are overt and explicit, such as L. Gordon Crovitz’s hilariously prejudiced columns claiming that the IANA transition will hand over control of the Internet to the Russians. But the latest attack is less direct and honest: it purports to be the product of a 6-month journalistic investigation into online pharmacies, but it reads more like a campaign to discredit ICANN in any way it can so as to undermine support for the IANA transition in Washington.

About 2 months ago a Wall Street Journal reporter began sending around emails saying he was interested in talking to people about ICANN. The implication was that he was looking for dirt. The reporter spoke to people, including this writer, at length about a very wide range of topics – everything from the Expert Working Group on Whois to the retroactively released (or retroactively passed?) board resolution authorizing ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade to pursue the NetMundial meeting with the government of Brazil, to the IANA transition. It was very surprising, then, when the resulting article, which appeared October 27, developed none of those topics but instead focused on an alleged “clash” between ICANN and Federal drug regulators.

The WSJ report insinuates that ICANN is incompetent or remiss in its duties because law enforcement agencies are not able to order it to take down web sites they think are illegal. But ICANN is not in charge of enforcing drug laws, it coordinates global top level domain name assignments (.com, org and the like) and accredits registrars of second-level domains. The idea that law enforcement agencies can get a web site taken down just by sending a notice to a global central authority is a pretty scary one. In fact, there has been a long-standing dialogue about the extent to which ICANN’s central coordinating role in the domain name market gives it the leverage to enforce other kinds of regulations on the Internet. This op ed piece by law scholar David Post calls attention to the dangers of seeing ICANN as a global Internet regulator.

In effect, the WSJ is supporting people who want there to be a global governmental regulator of the Internet. It doesn’t seem to care about the potential abuses of due process and the collateral damage and chilling effects that can occur when intermediaries performing technical and coordination functions affecting billions of people are used to enforce policies against a few wrongdoers.

What’s worse is that the article tries to link the IANA transition to this concern with drug regulation. It quotes former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, saying “ICANN needs continued oversight, partly because of its small compliance staff.” Can one decode this logic? ICANN, which is contracted by and overseen by the US government since its inception, is accused of not doing enough to enforce drug regulations – and that concern is used to rationalize continued US oversight. Few in the global community would disagree that ICANN needs better and strengthened accountability. But the WSJ article seems designed to short-circuit the process of creating denationalized, directly accountable structures in order to leave the current US government system in place.