An overview on Internet governance
Since 2002, when the process leading to the “World Summit on the Information Society” started, Internet governance has come into the limelight of global politics. There has been a controversial discussion at UN level about who should rule the Internet, and how it should be governed. The compromise of the Tunis declaration in 2005 postponed a decision and effectively preserved the status quo. This basically means an extension of US domination over the Internet until 2010 at least.
The controversy over who controls the Internet has simmered in arcane technology-policy circles for years and has only in recent years moved into formal diplomatic talks. Many governments feel that, like the phone network, the Internet should be administered under a multilateral agreement rather than to be dominated by the United States without legal basis.
Formally, there is no direct control of the US government over the Internet. However, through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the US Departments of Commerce and of State are exerting a strong influence on the administration of the root zone file, the core element of the Internet.
The role of ICANN
ICANN is a California-based non-profit corporation. It was created in 1998 to manage a number of Internet-related tasks previously performed directly on behalf of the US government by other organizations, notably IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority).
ICANN is responsible for the global coordination of the Internet's system of unique identifiers. These include domain names as well as the addresses used in a variety of Internet protocols.
In autumn 2006, the US government formally released its control over the Internet. On September 29, 2006, the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) signed an agreement with ICANN on the full management of the Internet's system of centrally coordinated identifiers through a multi-stakeholder model of consultation.
Formally, the administration of the Domain Name System (DNS) including the global Top Level Domains (gTLD) and the country code Top Level Domains (ccTLD) is under private administration by ICANN. The organisation has a number of advisory committees, including the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC).
The role of ICANN has been fundamentally criticised, particularly by governments of developing countries who feel excluded from crucial decisions, despite the GAC.
Quarrel about .xxx TLD
Recently, the political discussion about the proposed Top Level Domain (TLD) for websites with pornographic content showed how difficult it is for ICANN to perform its job neutrally. In April 2007, ICANN decided to reject the application by a consortium under the name of ICM Registry to create the generic TLD “.xxx” for porn sites. This had been preceded by two years of heavy political pressure. In summer 2005, Saudi-Arabia and Iran had objected the .xxx TLD in the GAC. In Spring 2006, the US Ministry of Trade had raised serious concerns against “triple X”, triggered by conservative-religious protests in the US against pornography on the Net.
The “triple X” controversy is just one example that shows how difficult it is to reach a global consensus on governing the Internet.
The WSIS process
In 2002 the process leading to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) started under the auspices of the United Nations. Due to the dissatisfaction of many countries with the internationally unregulated, US-dominated Internet governance, this issue became the focal point of the WSIS. In 2003, the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was established, which identified a number of Internet governance issues in their final report (2005).
The WGIG report mentions technical issues, like administration of the root zone files and system, allocation of domain names, and IP addressing. Furthermore, the report discusses regulatory and socio-economic issues, like multilingualism, interconnection cost, Spam, and Internet security; legal issues, like cyber-crime, intellectual property rights, data protection and privacy rights, and consumer rights, as well as political issues, like freedom of expression and meaningful participation in global policy development.
The final event of the WSIS in Tunis in 2005 ended with an unresolved conflict between the US government and the rest of the world on the best governance model. While the US favoured the status quo of private administration by ICANN, other countries advocated either a multi-stakeholder model or a government-controlled model of Internet governance. In the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, also known as Tunis Declaration from 18 November 2005, Internet governance is acknowledged to be of central importance to the development of the information society, but the resolution of critical issues is postponed. In paragraph 29, the vision for future Internet governance is defined in diplomatic and very broad terms:
“The international management of the Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations. It should ensure an equitable distribution of resources, facilitate access for all and ensure a stable and secure functioning of the Internet, taking into account multilingualism.”
Apart from such well-meaning declarations of intent, the only feasible result of the WSIS was the decision to establish the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in order to continue the discussion on Internet governance among all relevant stakeholders.
Internet Governance Forum
In November 2006, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held its first conference in Athens, Greece. Markus Kummer, Executive Coordinator of the IGF Secretariat, points out that “the IGF is an open forum – not a negotiating platform” (see his article in this issue). Chairman of the IGF is Nitin Desai, who also chaired the WGIG.
In the multi-stakeholder discussions of the IGF, the controversial issue of who should rule the Internet is not the focal point. Instead, the discussion seems to be now more about how the Internet should be ruled and in which way critical issues can be addressed. The list of critical issues is quite long, ranging from technical issues like DNS administration to socio-political issues like privacy and better access for social groups with low numbers of users. In addition to governments and established organisations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and ETNO, the European Telecoms Network Operators association (see article by ETNO Director Michael Bartholomew in this issue), a number of so-called Dynamic Coalitions, who represent a wide variety of societal causes, are participating in the IGF discussions (see interview with Christian Möller in this issue).
he mandate of the IGF ends in 2010. It is yet unclear, how the Internet will be governed after this date. It looks as if the ITU wants to have some say in respect to the future Internet governance. Independent of the IGF discussion, the ITU will organise a “World Telecommunication Policy Forum” in 2009, which will develop recommendations for the ITU general assembly in Mexico City in 2010.
While many Internet-related issues are increasing in complexity, it is yet unclear which of the alternative governance models will prevail. There is a wide range of alternatives from private sector governance to multi-stakeholder governance and inter-governmental Internet governance, from an unregulated Internet to a more regulated Internet. Whatever the changes may be, the pressure is strong to change the current status. However, only future will tell how Internet governance will evolve. The contributions in this cover theme of Eurescom mess@ge reflect a part of the current discussion.
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