European Nations Push for More Government Control Over Internet

Advocates for the open, lightly governed Internet were shocked last month when the European Union aligned itself with countries like Iran, China and Brazil in calling for world governments to assert control over the Internet’s core technical management functions. The EU proposal, offered near the end of a two-week UN conference on the Internet, appeared to deepen the rift between those nations calling for drastic changes to Internet oversight, and those like Argentina, New Zealand, the United States and many African nations, which support working to improve existing structures.

(1) European Nations Push for More Government Control Over Internet

(2) Current Management Structure Should be Reformed, Not Replaced

(3) Goals for World Summit on the Information Society Meeting, and Beyond

(1) European Nations Push for More Government Control Over Internet

Advocates for the open, lightly governed Internet were shocked last month when the European Union aligned itself with countries like Iran, China and Brazil in calling for world governments to assert control over the Internet’s core technical management functions. The EU proposal, offered near the end of a two-week UN conference on the Internet, appeared to deepen the rift between those nations calling for drastic changes to Internet oversight, and those like Argentina, New Zealand, the United States and many African nations, which support working to improve existing structures.

The World Summit on the Information Society — convened by the United Nations to address the global issues surrounding Internet access, development and management — is slated to conclude in November after two years of meetings and negotiations. Despite the breadth of the Summit’s charter, the most intense debate has, from the outset, centered on the narrow question of who has final say over the Internet’s technical management functions. Led by Brazil and Iran, a small but vocal coalition of governments have been seeking to end the system under which the non-governmental Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages the day-to-day functions of the Domain Name System (DNS) with oversight by the U.S. Government.

In place of the current structure, those governments propose what the EU is now calling a “new cooperation model” — essentially a multi-governmental bureaucracy that would replace the U.S. Government as the ultimate overseer of ICANN.

From a public interest perspective, any direct government involvement in the Internet’s technical management is less than optimal. The Internet’s success as a platform for speech and political organization can be largely accredited to the fact that the technological underpinning of the global network has not been politicized. Although U.S. public interest advocates understand the concerns of world leaders who feel the United States plays too large a role in Internet oversight, we strongly disagree with the notion that the way to ‘solve’ that problem is to exponentially increase the number of governments involved in the process. For all the criticism of the United States, it must be noted that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which oversees ICANN, has never vetoed a decision made by the body, which includes representatives from every region of the world.

The United Nations and its main technological regulatory arm, the International Telecommunications Union, have never demonstrated that they are capable of taking a ‘hands-off’ approach to anything under their purview. If one of those bodies were to assume NTIA’s role, the question would be not ‘if’ it would interfere with ICANN’s day-to-day operations but ‘when?’ Unfortunately, even the most benevolent interference could be damaging to an the global online community and economy, which have come to rely on the comparatively fast decision-making made possible by ICANN’s lightweight, non-governmental structure.

Much more ominous is the danger that some of the very countries that are demanding more control over the Internet’s addressing system (Iran, China, etc.) would use that control as a lever to impose anti-democratic policies on the Internet. Even if such efforts were defeated, the very threat could chill valuable speech.

CDT Comments to WSIS: http://www.cdt.org/international/20050812cdtwgig.pdf

(2) Current Management Structure Should be Reformed, Not Replaced

ICANN is an easy and frequent target of criticism within the global Internet community, and not without reason. The organization, created in 1998 to introduce competition to the sale of domain names, has yet to achieve the lofty goals of simplicity, transparency and public representation with which it was founded. As ICANN’s efforts to make itself more open have foundered, the organization has also occasionally reached beyond the limited technical oversight mission for which it was conceived. The combination of limited representation and the perception of an expanding mission have given the Internet community considerable pause. CDT shares these concerns and has worked since ICANN’s founding to address them, calling both for better representation and for a limited mission. However, despite efforts to internationalize its board and membership, the group is still widely perceived as being overly beholden to US interests. In defending existing Internet structures, it’s important not to minimize the need to improve and open the ICANN process.

Yet for all of the concerns associated with ICANN, the group has tallied a slate of accomplishments over the past seven years that would have been unheard of for an intergovernmental body operating under the same timeline. Since its inception, ICANN has introduced competition to both the retail and wholesale domain name businesses (both former monopolies), drastically driving down prices for consumers worldwide. By adding new Internet domains — .info and .biz, for example — ICANN has expanded the Internet space, and created more choices for users seeking to communicate. It has established procedures for re-delegation of country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) and has approved the re-delegation of numerous ccTLDs to local organizations more representative of the national Internet community. The organization, which boasts an internationally representative board, and is headed by an Australian, Paul Twomey, has also gone to pains to involve developing countries in the standard setting process, holding its meetings all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica.

Most of the UN proposals calling for drastic changes to how the Internet’s technical functions are managed seem to be premised on the flawed notions that ICANN is either a) broken beyond all hope of repair or b) so beholden to U.S. interests that it is incapable of responding to the growing needs of the world community. Neither position is supported by ICANN’s board makeup or record of accomplishments.

Complaints that ICANN has failed to adequately involve the international community in its decision-making process are not unfounded, but the volume of that outcry seems badly out of proportion to the limited nature of ICANN’s mission. ICANN was commissioned to oversee a narrow set of technical management functions for the Domain Name System. Though it is worthwhile to make ICANN more internationally representative, reformers should be devoting the bulk of their efforts to containing ICANN’s scope, which has grown beyond its initial charter. Taking steps to limit ICANN’s role could help alleviate global concerns about representation.

(3) Goals for World Summit on the Information Society Meeting, and Beyond

The U.S. delegation came to the September meeting — at the time slated to be the last preparatory gathering before the November Summit in Tunis — hoping to reach some sort of consensus on Internet governance. Chances for consensus disintegrated after the EU issued its proposal and the chair of the WSIS committee on Internet governance submitted a document that incorporated many of the most troubling recommendations from the EU and others. UN officials have now scheduled a final preparatory meeting to take place in the days immediately preceding the summit.

Earlier this year, NTIA announced in a “statement of principles” that the United States would not relinquish it’s oversight of the Domain Name System or take any other action that would threaten the security and stability of the Internet. Ambassador David Gross, the leader of the U.S. delegation to WSIS has reiterated that stance several times since.

With the EU and a number of other nations digging in their heels and demanding some measure of control over Internet management, the big question is whether there are elements of the Internet governance debate on which a plurality of leaders can reach consensus?

Finding that common ground is vital for the continued stability and security of the Internet. Although the United States can prevent any major changes to DNS oversight thanks to its control of the root server system, it is important to reach out to those countries that feel slighted by the current system of global Internet governance. Though it is extremely unlikely that any of those countries would take the extreme step of attempting to launch their own, alternate addressing systems anytime in the near term, it would be troubling if a substantial number of nations’ left Tunis angry and dissatisfied with the outcome of the Internet governance debate.

One proposal that has been offered — both by individual nations and a study group commissioned by the UN to study the Internet governance question — is the creation of some sort of global forum to consider issues of global import to the Internet, like spam, spyware and cyber crime. This proposal is not without its own problems. Left unchecked, a forum could easily mutate into something more powerful and insidious, but many in the business and public interest community have offered suggestions for facilitating continued international dialogue over Internet governance through existing structures. If an agreement can be reached it could head off an angry clash in Tunis that could have repercussions throughout the Internet.

In the meantime, it is incumbent on American governmental, corporate and public interest leaders to engage their foreign counterparts to discuss the value of preserving the non-governmental, bottom-up Internet management model that has contributed so greatly to the Internet’s global success. The more clearly that message is delivered, the less likely the United States will be forced into the uncomfortable position of staving off future attempts to hijack the technical management of the Internet for political purposes. Read more on cdt.org

About domainnewafrica

We Pride in bringing you the most updated domain industry news and events as they happen both locally in Africa as well as Globally.

Leave a Reply