As participants in – and long-time supporters of – the governance model of ICANN and the regional Internet registries, we were puzzled by a recent blog post by three leaders of these important institutions. Sally Costerton is the interim CEO of ICANN, the organization that operates the IANA and develops policy for the global Domain Name System; John Curran is the CEO of ARIN, the IP address registry for North America; Paul Wilson is the Director General of APNIC, the IP address registry for the Asia-Pacific region. On 21 August, this illustrious trio published an article on ICANN’s website claiming that the UN’s “Global Digital Compact” is a “top-down attempt to minimize the role of the Internet technical community.” Apparently, the group feels deeply threatened by statements from the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, Amandeep Gill, and describes some of his passing comments on a EuroDIG panel as an “attempt to change the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.”

We are not big fans of the UN, but find these charges to be unwarranted and poorly thought out. Here is a quick summary of the reasons why:

  1. The UN has no power to impose any particular stakeholder model on Internet Governance (IG) institutions
  2. Gill’s statement was not an attempt to exclude or minimize the Internet technical community, it simply bundled it together with academics and civil society into a tripartite model, which is not all that unusual
  3. The trio’s attempt to justify the role of the Internet technical community by appealing to the WSIS Tunis Agenda is inaccurate and misguided; it shows that they do not understand basic things about the Tunis Agenda and the politics of global IG.
  4. Nothing good can come from reviving the hoary “UN is out to take over the Internet” meme; it cannot happen, and fretting about it diverts attention from real, serious threats to a free, open, multistakeholder Internet governance model.

1.  The UN Digital Compact and the Native IG Institutions

The Internet privatized and commercialized global communications, triggering rapid development that left intergovernmental institutions such as the United Nations and the Internet Telecommunication Union in the dust. The World Summit on the Information Society, held between 2002 and 2005, was an attempt by the ITU to overthrow the private sector-led governance model exemplified by ICANN and the RIRs. It failed to do so. Tussles over intergovernmental vs nongovernmental Internet governance continued for another decade, but the U.S. government’s successful transition of authority over IANA to the global Internet community in October 2016 settled the matter.

Since then, the UN has been trying valiantly to find a meaningful role for itself in the digital political economy. The only real linkage between the UN and IG is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a voluntary, multistakeholder discussion forum with no real policy making authority. So it makes sense that a variety of UN initiatives are attempting to “strengthen” the IGF. This includes the creation of the Leadership Panel, the Tech Envoy role held by Amandeep Gill, the Global Digital Compact, and now, a more multilateral-driven alternative to the IGF, the Digital Cooperation Forum – which doesn’t exist yet.

The simple fact is that none of these UN-based institutions have, or ever will have, policy authority over Internet standards, Internet identifiers, Internet interconnection and routing, Internet operations, or Internet services and applications. Those powers reside in global, private sector-based IG institutions such as IETF, ICANN and the RIRs, or in the regulatory authority of national sovereigns such as the USA, the EU, the UK, India or China. There is no plausible scenario by which these functions migrate to the UN. Key national governments and governmental blocs simply cannot agree on common policies or powerful new intergovernmental institutions that can take over these functions via the UN.

So UN-derived “stakeholder” categories in its voluntary and nonbinding forums do not matter all that much. However the UN describes stakeholder groups, it has no power to export those definitions to the real IG institutions. Whether the UN Tech Envoy genuflects to the technical community sufficiently is not something Costerton, Curran and Wilson should be worrying about.

2. A Tripartite Model?

Costerton, Curran and Wilson see in Ambassador Gill’s mention of a “tripartite” stakeholder model some kind of an attempt to diminish the role of the “technical community.” They write:

“The UN Tech Envoy’s statement suggests that there is a new “tripartite” model for digital cooperation, in which there are only three stakeholder groups – the private sector, governments and civil society (which includes the technical community). In other words, this model excludes the technical community as a distinct component, and overlooks the unique and essential roles played by that community’s members separately and collectively.”

The Tech Envoy statements explicitly call out the technical community as a component of civil society, along with academics. (As academics, should we be offended by this?) Yet the letter grumps: “The technical community is not part of civil society and it has never been.”

It is difficult to understand their prickliness here. Many definitions of civil society grounded in sociology and political science classify ALL social actors who are not part of the government as “civil society.” More importantly, in the real world, there are no hard and fast boundaries between the private sector, civil society, and the Internet technical community. Most of the core Internet technical community got their start in academic computer science research or in education and research networking. Many of them quickly developed ties to businesses. Look at Ms Costerton herself – she is from a management/business background, not the technical community. The native IG institutions already afford great influence and power to the technical community. Whinging about being grouped with civil society doesn’t go over well. There is nothing terribly threatening or even inaccurate about seeing governments, business and civil society as the basic stakeholder groups.

3. Multistakeholderism and the WSIS Tunis Agenda

The most bizarre thing about the blog post is its attempt to attack Gill’s “tripartite” model by appealing to the products of the World Summit on the Information Society: the Tunis Agenda and the Working Group on Internet Governance. Here, they just do not have their facts straight. The Tunis Agenda already puts forward a “tripartite” understanding of stakeholder groups. It is right there in paragraph 35:

  1. We reaffirm that the management of the Internet encompasses both technical and public policy issues and should involve all stakeholders and relevant intergovernmental and international organizations. In this respect it is recognized that:

Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States. They have rights and responsibilities for international Internet-related public policy issues.

The private sector has had, and should continue to have, an important role in the development of the Internet, both in the technical and economic fields.

Civil society has also played an important role on Internet matters, especially at community level, and should continue to play such a role.

This official document recognizes States, the Private Sector, and Civil society as stakeholder groups. That’s it. It then adds:

We recognize the valuable contribution by the academic and technical communities within those stakeholder groups mentioned in paragraph 35 to the evolution, functioning and development of the Internet.

Like the Tech Envoy’s statements that the trio found objectionable, the Tunis Agenda explicitly recognizes the technical community but places it within other stakeholder groups. Welcome to civil society, friends. Or is it the private sector? Whatever.

Strikingly, the authors do not seem to realize that the WSIS and WGIG definitions are not full endorsements of multi-stakeholder governance. The WSIS/WGIG definitions are, in fact, an attempt by governments to salvage a special, more powerful role for governments. The WGIG definition and the Tunis agenda sorted each stakeholder class into different roles, reserving “public policy” to governments and consigning “technical and operational matters” to the private sector. Thus, governments formally acknowledged the presence of different stakeholders in Internet governance, but by linking them to distinct, segregated “roles,” they tried to exclude business and civil society from making public policy. The definition refused to recognize any sharing or redistribution of political power. Not until the NetMundial statement do we correct that flawed approach to multistakeholder governance. By appealing to the WSIS outputs, they not only undercut their own argument, they expose a weak grasp of the evolving politics of IG.

4. Why it is harmful to make the UN the Boogeyman

The most annoying thing about the ICANN-ARIN-APNIC missive, however, is its apparent attempt to revive the old “UN is trying to take over the Internet” meme. This boogeyman has been used by the technical community and the US government to haunt the children of the global multistakeholder community since 2002. When the threat was real, or even real but exaggerated, this was OK. But 7 years after the ICANN transition there is no excuse for it. We have already explained why the UN lacks the power to take over any key Internet governance functions. We have already noted that their only systematic attempt to do that, at WSIS in 2005, totally failed.

Reviving this threat narrative, however, does real damage to the public discourse on IG, because it diverts attention from the real threats to the multistakeholder model.

We live in a digital environment that is fragmenting along jurisdictional lines. The Europeans are pursuing Digital Sovereignty, as are the Indians and Chinese. The Americans are weaponizing semiconductors, undersea cables, investment capital in ICT, and actively considering blocking Chinese apps; the UK is considering banning end to end encryption, leading to the possible exit of key applications and services from the UK market. Tech nationalism is on the rise everywhere. What we must understand in this context is that the threats to a global Internet come from conflicts between and regulations from sovereign states, not from the UN, a weak intergovernmental institution that can only act when these states all agree.

Our advice to Costerton, Curran and Wilson: take a deep breath. Calmly consider what powers the multistakeholder community – which consists of a largely undifferentiated mass of techies, civil society, academics and business – already have in Internet governance. Try to do an accurate accounting of the threats to that governance model. Devote your attention and efforts to those threats. Don’t try to drive the community into pointless battles with ghosts.

1 thought on “The Technical Community and Internet Governance: A Response to the Costerton-Curran-Wilson letter

  1. This is brilliant. We also need to immediately incorporate teens and children’s voices into these discussions. We are working with Teens. Anyone for under 12s?

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