European Commission calls for greater government control over Internet

Series of ‘informal background papers’ promote online power grab

An extraordinary series of policy papers drawn up by the European Commission and published today by .Nxt have called for greater governmental control over the Internet’s domain name system.

Among a long series of measures promoted in no less than six papers by the EC’s Information Society and Media Directorate-General are:

  • A government veto over any new Internet extensions
  • The creation of a list of names, drawn up by governments, that would be banned from registration
  • Significant structural changes at overseeing organization ICANN, including at Board level and in the crucial IANA contract
  • An obligation for ICANN to follow governments’ advice unless deemed illegal or damaging to the Internet’s stability
  • Two new bodies to oversee ICANN decision-making and finances

Combined together, the measures would provide governments with de facto control over the Internet’s naming systems and bring an end to the independent and autonomous approach that has defined the Internet’s domain name system since its inception.

The papers also foresee that the enormous shift in power toward governments will happen within the next 12 months, with plans to formally raise or even implement suggested measures at meetings towards the end of this year, in particular ICANN’s meeting in Senegal in October.

Read our analysis of the papers, the broader context and the Internet governance world in which they live

Taken overall, the documents represent a significant step backwards and appear to reflect the mindset of governments six years earlier when the future of the Internet’s naming systems was debated at a World Summit in Tunisia.

That world summit process – WSIS – ended bitter negotiations with governments retaining their advisor-only status at the top level of the Internet, rather than be granted special oversight powers.

As such, this move from the European Commission arguing for increased government control will come as a shock to many in the Internet community. We understand that EU member states are also furious at what they see as a misguided and damaging effort to force change onto the DNS and ICANN.

The papers themselves are billed as “informal background papers” and have not yet been published. They were drawn up in response to two meetings of the EC’s "High Level Internet Governance" (HLIG) group, which acts as the main informal body for deciding Internet governance matters across Europe, and come from the director of the EC’s Audiovisual, Media and Internet Directorate, Gerard de Graaf.

De Graaf has proved to be a divisive figure since first appearing in Internet governance circles earlier this year at ICANN’s meeting in Singapore. At a public meeting between the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and the ICANN Board, he famously described the conversation as “a discussion between the deaf and the stupid”.

Deja vu

It is not the first time that the European Commission has promoted the idea of a government-controlled Internet. In 2005, at the height of the WSIS negotiations, the EC proposed a "new cooperation model" that caused an outburst of anger from the Internet community and was referred to by former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt as bringing with it "enthusiastic applause from Tehran, Beijing and Havana".

This time around, the policy papers come amid tensions between mostly Western governments promoting the “multi-stakeholder” model of decision-making - where all parties, including business, civil society, the technical community and governments are given equal say – and more authoritarian governments that wish to see decisions about the Internet’s future made within inter-governmental bodies. Once again, the European Commission’s proposals will earn the “enthusiastic applause” of more authoritarian governments.

In some respects, ICANN only has itself to blame for renewed calls to make it directly accountable to governments. WSIS effectively gave ICANN five years to internationalize, and prove itself capable of running a global resource. Five years on, ICANN looks more American than ever, and recent exchanges with governments looked disrespectful. Tensions were heightened when ICANN formally rejected official government advice in March.

Nevertheless, and despite ICANN’s continued failings, the EC plan outlined in these policy papers will cause significant alarm among Internet professionals and again raise the specter of a government-run or controlled Internet.


Read a summary of each paper and what it says in its own words


Analysis

Read the EC policy papers in full [registration required]

Member resources