The speech by the International Telecommunication Union’s Hamadoun Tourébrought the ongoing power struggle over Internet governance into the open. Toure spoke openly of the ongoing “war” between ICANN and the ITU. He demanded a stronger role for governments in ICANN, dismissing ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) as “cosmetic” (quite wrong, as I will show later). He correctly accused the UN Internet Governance Forum of “avoiding issues” but also rather harshly dismissed it as a “waste of time.” I commend Secretary General Touré for his forthrightness, which is all too rare in international organizations. Unfortunately, his blunt speech supports the wrong cause.
Let me be blunt, too. Mr. Secretary-General, this is all about competition for power, isn’t it? Your international organization lost a lot of authority over the communications industry when the Internet emerged, and now you are trying to get some of it back. The same goes for the governments who constitute the GAC. And of course, for the U.S. government, it’s all about holding on to the special powers it got because of its historical control over the contractors who ran the early internet.
There is a question you all leave unanswered. Not only unanswered, but unasked, because you and the others involved in this power game are so focused on who has authority that you rarely think about whose interests that authority reflects and how it would be used to improve anything. So here’s the question: why should the average internet user or the average person who doesn’t even have internet access yet, give a damn about whether you and other governments get more power?
As far as I can tell, the only thing the ITU is interested in is in rewiring Internet standards to enable oligopolistic or monopolistic telecom companies, and their governments, to gain more control over users both economically and politically. Why would the public be interested in supporting that?
When was the last time, Mr. Toure, that the ITU proposed any policies or technical standards that would increase the freedom, flexibility, and affordability of the Internet? When the ITU was contending for control over IP address allocation, I was sympathetic, and asked the people involved just what they planned to do with that policy authority. The answer, astoundingly, was that they had no idea. Not the foggiest idea. They just wanted to control it. They promised to figure out the “what for” later.
I have watched governments increase their power over ICANN – including especially the U.S., which abandoned its commitment to an autonomous, nongovernmental coordination during the .xxx debacle – for about 8 years now. You are wrong about the GAC being cosmetic, Mr. Toure. In December 2002, GAC advice was written into the ICANN bylaws as being binding to listen to and respond to. De facto, ICANN’s President and staff make GAC policy advice – especially that emanating from the U.S. Commerce Department – a parameter that bounds policy making by business and civil society. In the .xxx affair, ICANN abandoned its defined process and turned over contract negotiations directly to the GAC, at the behest of the U.S. The European Union got a new TLD just because it wanted one, and maintainced the fiction that it was a ccTLD even though it was not on the ISO-3166 list. In the new ccTLD fast track process, governments demanded, and will get, a whole new range of multilingual domains and probably will not pay any fees or be bound to any meaningful contract. No way anyone in their right mind can say that governments are helpless, cosmetic players in ICANN.
Unfortunately, this growing government intervention has not been a progressive force. Have governments intervened to balance the demands of civil society and consumers against the powerful private sector copyright, trademark and e-commerce interests who have converged on ICANN? Hell no. All they have done is grab resources for themselves.
Here is, as far as I am concerned, the sum total of traditional government’s involvement in ICANN:
They have asserted control over ccTLD administration. Have there been any amazing new developments or improvements in ccTLD registry services since then? Not that I can tell.
They have insisted on the right to use Internet administration to spy indiscriminately on its users (Whois, etc.)
They have reserved to themselves geographic names in new TLDs. Yet, they have no real claim to these names in international law, and these claims pre-empt all kinds of potential uses regardless of whether they are harmful or not. Their claims are sort of like the King of Spain declaring that he owned Mexico because he landed an army there. They got reserved names because they wanted them and had the power to assert them. To national governments cyberspace is just a new arena for new forms of colonialism.
Let me continue to be blunt, because you and other government officials badly need to hear it. Yes, the U.S. government is completely hypocritical about ICANN. The U.S. remains in control behind the scenes and exploits its control in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways for the benefit of itself and various other commercial interests. But to solve this problem, we need to get governments further away from ICANN, we don’t need 220 additional governments.
It’s unfortunate that “multi-stakeholderism” (MS) as a legitimizing principle has become so widely accepted, mainly through endless repetition. The problem with the MS principle is that it avoids talking about the relative power each stakeholder group has. Currently, civil society and to a lesser extent business stakeholders involved in Internet governance are increasingly like chickens thrown into a multistakeholder henhouse with a bunch of foxes. The rhetoric of MS can disarm civil society from resisting these encroachments. We need to think more carefully about what governments are really supposed to do, and not just give them a blanket right to “be involved” in areas that might, and probably should, remain free of them.