A reporter from the Indian newspaper The Hindu recently solicited my reaction to the India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) proposal for a new UN-based oversight body for Internet governance. The questions he sent were very well drafted and stimulating, so my responses far exceeded what he could use in the article he wrote. So I am publishing my full answers here.
Q: Going by available background material, IBSA seems to be suggesting that the proposed UN centered body for Internet governance have “an open and participative architecture that provides sufficient space for non- governmental participants”. So, need the proposal be necessarily seen – as many in the West seem to – as an attempt to undermine the so-called multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance in vogue today?
A: I suspect that the Brazilians and Indians are sincere in their support for more open and participative institutions. However, I also believe that they are fundamentally confused about what they want. They do not grasp the radicalism of the Internet's de-nationalized governance. They have not thought through what they are proposing.
It is easy to say “open and participative architecture” but what does this mean? Usually governments who pay lip service to multistakeholderism mean that governments will make the real decisions, and the private sector and civil society are given some kind of minor voice. During the World Summit on the Information Society, some governments thought they were being very generous by allowing nongovernmental participants to observe the meeting and permit ONE representative of civil society and ONE private sector rep to give 5-minute speeches at the end of a 6-hour day, when most of the government representatives were no longer in the room. Is that what they mean by participative?
The spirit of the Internet governance community is far more democratic. There is no one voice for civil society; anyone should be able to participate. There is no one voice for business, there are many. To organize Internet governance discussions along the lines of the highly formalized categories used by the UN doesn't work. Besides, most of the real internet governance occurs through the operational decisions of network managers. There is no supranational government that can exert hierarchical power over the Internet, nor should there be. The IBSA governments need to get that fact into their heads.
In the IBSA proposal, who actually has authority to establish credentials for participation, set the agenda, make decisions, etc.? If non-governmental participants make these decisions on equal terms with the governmental representatives, then why are IBSA proposing the United Nations as the venue for the new body? The UN is an intergovernmental forum organized around nation-states. It is designed to empower and represent governments, not a transnational community. Why not propose new nongovernmental institutions, or propose evolutions of existing multistakeholder bodies like IGF and ICANN?
It really is a polarized choice. Internet governance can either be de-nationalized and based on the Internet's users and suppliers, or it can be intergovernmental. It cannot be both. I believe that IBSA doesn't understand this and that is why I say they are confused.
Q: How valid are the arguments being made in this context (by India and other countries) that the existing fora for Internet governance have not adequately addressed issues and concerns of interest to developing nations? Is there need for any kind of change in the way the Internet is governed now?
A: I have a mixed reaction to this question. On the one hand, I believe that many of the issues and concerns raised by developing nation governments are really just the issues and concerns of those countries' governments and not the issues and concerns of their people. When, for example, India says that it “must” have surveillance of Blackberries, it is not representing the interests of the Internet-using public in India, it is representing the narrow political and security interests of the Indian state. When Russia and China complain about the privileged U.S. role, it is not because they care about how this harms Internet users, it is just because they are jealous of its power and they want to share some of it. Governments rarely intervene in a way that advances a global public interest. We don't want to see the Internet devoured by power struggles among governments.
On the other hand, it is unfortunately true that existing forums make it more difficult than it should be to discuss any changes that challenge the hegemony of the established institutions such as ICANN, the Regional Internet Address Registries, etc. (I can give you more concrete examples of this if you like, but it would be maybe too lengthy a discussion.) It is also true that there are people in the IGF and ICANN community who use the Forum to deflect or defuse discussions and actions on the real issues. Actually these people, including the USA and the EU, love to talk about “development” and “helping developing countries.” What they want to avoid is talk of real governance or anything that disturbs the status quo (unless it is something that helps copyright and law enforcement interests – then they can be very change-oriented!).
Unfortunately, the IBSA approach makes this problem worse rather than better. By threatening the Internet governance community with some kind of takeover by an intergovernmental institution, the IBSA group (and also Russia and China) lose the sympathy of most of the people involved, and make it easy for their arguments to be dismissed as a threatened authoritarian takeover of the Internet.
The proper way to handle this, is 1) to understand that the Internet governance must be a new kind of decentralized networked governance, and 2) to work within the IGF and other transnational institutions to raise issues in an intelligent and informed way, and 3) to form alliances with sympathetic networks of civil society and private sector actors. In those efforts, they need to work with people in civil society (such as, for example, our Internet Governance Project) to gain the mix of technical, business and policy expertise needed to attack these issues.
Q: The Indian representative at the recent IGF meeting (In Kenya) had said that the IBSA proposal was primarily a call for discussion. And that it is wrong to say that the proposed body is (to function?) 'only' under the UN. Do you see the proposal evolving and gaining acceptance in the global Internet community one way or the other?
A: Well, it sounds to me like IBSA is backing away from its original proposal. Perhaps it is good that the IBSA spokespersons are changing or “evolving” their original proposal. But the words of their original recommendations are quite clear: the “new body” they proposed should be “under the UN” and should “integrate and supervise” the existing organizations. Will their proposal ever gain acceptance among the global internet community? As I said above, only if they wrap their minds around new forms of governance and abandon the old nation-centered concepts.