Global Internet governance fight looms
by Kieren McCarthy | 22 Sep 2011 |
The global fight between governments over control of the Internet is heating up amid a flurry of documents, the opening of the United Nations’ General Assembly (GA) and next week’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF).
On the eve of the opening day of the annual forum of world governments, the Chinese and Russian governments jointly submitted a letter to the General Assembly outlining a “code of conduct for information security” that called for “establishing a multilateral, transparent and democratic international Internet governance mechanism”.
At the same time, a summary of a meeting held earlier this month between India, Brazil and South Africa governments (with a few representatives of civil society) was published calling for Internet governance issues to be pulled into the United Nations.
These documents add to others produced by the European Commission in August that argue for greater government control over the Internet (albeit through the existing, non-UN systems). And then two more from May and June, driven by the United States: formal declarations of meetings of the OECD and G8, both stressing the need for “multi-stakeholder” systems to decide the Internet’s future.
Nothing less than the fate of the future evolution of the Internet is at stake, and three camps have now staked out their positions and strategy.
A three-legged stool, with two wobbly legs
China and Russia represent a very pro-government view of how the Internet should be governed, reflecting the realities of their societies where government power dominates over business, civil society, academia or the technical community.
Their approach – the “code of conduct” – represents a savvy use of the United Nations to influence global decision-making. The code is not represented as requiring resolution and, it contains many aspects that most governments would be willing to sign up to.
China has significant sway within the United Nations due to its financial arrangements with a large number of smaller countries. Combined with Russia, which also dominates its region and has a wealth of important agreements with many countries globally, the two will find it comparatively easy to pass a motion at the United Nations thanks to the body’s one-member, one-vote rule.
Rather than force a confrontation at the UN, however, both countries hope that the code will have the effect of pulling discussion of Internet governance into the UN arena and away from the various Internet organizations – including the IGF – that currently dominate its evolution.
The wording of the code of conduct may seem largely innocuous, but in the context of Internet governance contains a number of highly significant terms. For example, use of the word “multi-lateral” rather than “multi-stakeholder” is a clear statement that governments will be in overall charge of the process.
Likewise “combating criminal and terrorist activities which use ICTs including networks, and curbing dissemination of information which incites terrorism, secessionism, extremism or undermines other countries' political, economic and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment” means one thing in a Western democracy with a strong rule of law, a heavily defended freedom of speech and a powerful civil society, but quite another in a more authoritarian government that views criticism of itself as inherently criminal and a cause of instability.
Number 10 of the code reads: “To bolster bilateral, regional and international cooperation, promote the United Nations' important role in formulation of international norms, peaceful settlement of international disputes, and improvement of international cooperation in the field of information security, and enhance coordination among relevant international organizations.”
This paragraph contains all the elements necessary for a government-run expansion of the Internet, and none of those associated with the more egalitarian organizations that were responsible for the creation of the Internet itself and where individuals are given a free voice and the private sector acts as the driving force.
The last point in the code: “To settle any dispute resulting from the application of this Code through peaceful means and refrain from the threat or use of force” is a calculated dig at the United States government, following the Pentagon’s statement this year that cyber-attacks may be represent an Act of War.
The young upstarts
The second main group in the Internet governance group is the rapidly expanding and increasingly powerful group of developing countries: India, Brazil and South Africa – increasingly referred to as just ‘IBSA’ in UN circles.
In many respects, IBSA represents a less polished and more reactive force in Internet governance, determined to stand independent but at the same time reliant on the other two groups to make anything happen.
IBSA has carved out a position in between the other groups that they are still trying to define. So while, the meeting it held earlier this month contained individuals from civil society – thereby presenting a ‘multi-stakeholder’ face to deliberations – none of those individuals represent serious actors within the Internet governance world.
The summary of the meeting does not represent the full range of views that a proper multi-stakeholder discussion would have produced and also strikes an uncomfortable balance between trying not to upset the two more powerful groups either side of it and standing independently.
The clearest example of this is the inclusion of both the terms ‘multi-stakeholder’ and ‘multi-lateral’ next to one another. The two are mutually exclusive in this context.
However, the complex balancing act in this case falls down on the pro-government side by mentioning both the United Nations and the loaded term of “enhanced cooperation” while not providing equal weight to the multi-stakeholder model.
The most striking wording comes when the summary calls for a “new global body” that would “integrate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the Internet, including global standards setting”. That is a red-line for the third group in the Internet governance debate.
Uncle Sam and Auntie Neelie
And last, in that third group, come the nations that support a pro-multi-stakeholder approach to the Internet’s evolution, made up mostly of Western democracies, with the United States as the most significant proponent.
This group represents the current default for the Internet since the US in particular was the home of the Internet’s development and the culture of decision-making by consensus and with all ‘stakeholders’ present and given equanimity was the process by which the global network developed.
The United States has so far comprehensively outmaneuvered attempts by other governments to seize control of the Internet, helped by the fact that it holds the keys and represents the status quo. Successful efforts to push through resolutions related to the multi-stakeholder process in both the G8 and the OECD have pre-empted the current efforts taking place in the United Nations and put the US in a strong position.
However that position is currently threatened from within by two key components: the European Union and ICANN.
The European Commission, most clearly represented by Commissioner Neelie Kroes, created a storm this month when it produced a series of policy documents which outlined a clear plan to increase the power of governments within the current processes and in some cases gain primacy in decisions.
By bringing up the suggestion that “some animals are more equal than others” to quote George Orwell, through the suggestion that the Governmental Advisory Committee be in a position to decide matters, the EC risked unraveling a united front against greater government control.
At the same time, the most visible and influential representation of the multi-stakeholder model – ICANN – continues to frustrate just about everyone by failing to mature fast enough and, in some respects, going backwards on issues such as internationalization, transparency and accountability.
Where are we headed?
The global Internet governance fight that is coming to a head has been brewing for six years, when the last major discussion over how to manage the Internet took place through the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
Despite serious concerted efforts, the reality is that the Internet has grown in importance faster than multi-stakeholders have been able to develop robust and secure decision-making processes.
ICANN has failed to step up to the challenge, having devoted far too much attention to itself, and looks dangerously like a creature that can only act when under threat of imminent demise. Even though the organization can expect to survive this latest round of argument, even its supporters are beginning to consider variations or alternatives.
Other multi-stakeholder efforts are flourishing but still in their early stages. The Internet Governance Forum – which will be host to many of the discussions surrounding this topic next week – is the most mature and has proven robust enough to survive concerted efforts to pull it into an inter-governmental context.
But then the IGF does not have the ability to make decisions so while it represents the multi-stakeholder model, it does not demonstrate an alternative to traditional decision-making structures.
Which leaves as the poster child for effective multi-stakeholder decision-making as a number of proposals making their way through the US government on privacy, cybersecurity, the free flow of information, and online copyright protection. That process fits multi-stakeholderism within a sandwich of legislation at the front and government agency enforcement at the back.
With the spotlight starting to fall on how precisely the world decides the next few decades of Internet expansion, it could well be that the United States government is again the organization left with the task of carving out a path for the Internet to follow.
The first time it handed over day-to-day management of the domain name system; the second time, it will have pulled what was learnt back into its own decision-making systems.