Calling a Bluff? ICANN Transition and Internet Governance Poker Heats up

//CGCS Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Ben Wagner discusses the upcoming NETMundial conference in Brazil and questions whether ‘global forums’ actually impact the wider geopolitics of the internet.

With the coming ‘Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance’ NETmundial conference in Brazil, the debate on internet governance is heating up again. Less than two years after the ITU’s WCIT summit in Dubai and less than a year after revelations about mass NSA spying, a new attempt will be made to change the way the internet is governed. The NETmundial conference is both an attempt by the Brazilian government to find an answer to U.S. surveillance practices and an attempt to properly democratize and globalize internet governance.[1]

Recent statements by the U.S. government about changes to the IANA function, however, alter the regulatory environment and in so doing put in question the relevance of the Brazil conference as well as, such authority the conference has tried to accumulate. The U.S. government is changing the terms of the debate about global control over ICANN by, itself, soliciting proposals about the future of multistakeholder governance. The NETmundial conference was asking participants to contribute a “roadmap for the further evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem.”  What such proposals should be shift and alter as the internet governance ecosystem has already changed.

The U.S.’s decision also demonstrates, with startling effectiveness, how little such ‘global forums’ actually matter in the wider geopolitics of the internet. Particularly when the whims of the U.S. are concerned, there is little that can be done without considering the U.S.’s potential veto position. This has been the case for decades with the United States blocking global internet governance institutions and ensuring that, beyond the creation of the IGF which is itself mainly a forum for debates and the creation of communities, little progress is made.

In an otherwise excellent article, Francesca Musiani and Julia Pohle attribute this impasse to the UN’s indecisiveness. But  the UN and various UN Framework organizations such as UNESCO and the ITU have been desperate to get more involved in internet governance. Many of these organizations were in fact deeply involved in organizing the WSIS process from 2002 to 2005. It is therefore not exactly that the UN is indecisive, but rather that the U.S. and other European countries have prevented international organizations from becoming more involved.

What all actors have thus far failed in, and what remains as the prevailing failure in internet governance, is to find any reasonable justification for the way the internet is governed right now. The typical justifications offered such as it works (functional), they know what they are doing (expertocratic), or involving actors from the global south would be highly problematic (prophetic) are not particularly helpful. Not finding a reasonable construct that allows for power to be exercised responsibly is the core failure of the past two decades. Relying on the United States or any of its governance agencies to safeguard core internet resources or multi-stakeholder institutions, let alone human rights online, has always been questionable and in 2014 is more clearly lacking in legitimacy.

In this context, Sunil Abraham’s recent blog post is a breath of fresh air. It tries to navigate complex territory of internet governance while pragmatically suggesting: “[an internet] global governance system will be decentralized, diverse or plural in nature yet interoperable, will have both multilateral and multistakeholder institutions and mechanisms and will be as interested in deregulation for the public interest as it is in regulation for the public interest.” This may sound obvious to people who are not involved in the internet governance debate, but it is rather distant from many of the positions currently espoused in the internet governance universe.

To start with a few basics: why should academia be given a (voting) seat at the table of multi-stakeholderism? Why should the technical community? Why should the business community be on equal footing with civil society or governments? Beyond their proclaimed positions as ‘stakeholders’ this organization of interests does not seem to make a lot of sense. From the perspective of any student of democratic norms, power and particularly quasi-monopoly or unilateral power in a certain domain requires justification. Thus it could reasonably be asked: how did the U.S. – both government and corporations – prevail with a claim to be the “benevolent […] steward” of the internet for so long?

In this sense, Brazilian President Dilma Roussef called the U.S.’s bluff after the NSA surveillance revelations of 2013. However, in their uncertainty about what actually to do about the scandal, the Brazilian government ended up focusing their efforts on an international conference about the future of multistakeholderism and internet norms which – while providing a valuable international venue for debate – has relatively little to do with surveillance. In return the U.S. decided to reassert its authority on the future of multi-stakeholderism by calling out the Brazilian bluff. Or put more simply: ‘Great conference you have there, nice that you are talking about all of these internety things, but we will be the one’s making the decision, okay?’

There will be a lot more bluffs to be called before the whole absurdity of the current state of internet governance is unravelled. However, it is also time for a healthy debate and it is encouraging to see how much good scholarship recent debates on these issues have produced. From developing a critical Political Economy of Internet Freedom to a well-argued critique of Digital Cold War Rhetoric, the critical voices are starting to override the status quo. There is a lot more research before we have an accurate picture of how the internet is actually governed, but it is nice to know that in the meantime there is a critical debate underway.


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