Let a Thousand ISPs Bloom: A Hands-Off Approach to Global Tech Development

Simply uttering the phrase “Internet governance” is enough to make some people cringe with visions of Big Brother. But Internet governance is not—and shouldn’t be—some Orwellian nightmare in which a global ministry of information controls what we read, see, and do online. In fact, it is a relatively innocuous concept—one of domain names, root servers, and other such arcana. 

However, as people increasingly communicate online, governments have also become more involved. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a United Nations agency that studies technological development, recently met in November in Tunis, Tunisia. A U.N. working group called the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) released a report in June 2005 that included some controversial policy recommendations for the future of the Internet.

The Tunis summit focused largely on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—a longstanding player in the Internet governance debate. ICANN has been in charge of assigning all domain names and country codes though the Domain Name System (DNS) since its creation by the U.S. government in 1998. Despite the possibility for a showdown between the U.S. and other countries, representatives from the international community agreed to keep ICANN in the control of the U.S. The U.S. also agreed to work with individual countries before ICANN makes a decision affecting a non-U.S. country’s top level domain.

Yet a showdown averted does not mean that the United Nations—or some governments— will back off from future attempts for more political control over the Internet. Restrictions over content and control over the technical aspects of the Internet will still be at risk—and the United Sttes.must still be vigilant in asserting private sector involvement.

WSIS: An International Talk Shop and Development Plan

WSIS was conceived during a 1998 meeting of the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to serve as a two-phased platform for discussing the international role in information technology. The first phase of WSIS negotiations took place in December 2003 in Geneva. The meeting brought together leaders from 175 nations to discuss the best ways to bring new information and communications technologies to the developing world. During the Geneva meeting, the members adopted a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action. The Summit’s second phase took place in Tunis in November.

The WSIS “Plan of Action” aims to “build an inclusive Information Society,” emphasize development, and address new challenges of the Information Society, at the national, regional, and international levels.

While many of the solutions WSIS proposed before its first meeting suggest an important role for governments, the findings in the Geneva phase emphasized the importance of the private sector, civil society, and international organizations. The group found that, “governments should foster a supportive, transparent, pro-competitive and predictable policy, legal and regulatory framework, which provides the appropriate incentives to investment and community development in the Information Society.”

This is the glimmer of hope—a seemingly market-oriented strategy buried in what is an otherwise typical, acronym-laden proposal by an international organization. Participants in both discussions—governance and development—need to seek input from outside government bureaucracies. There is a tendency in any policy-related endeavor toward more governmental control, not less. In order to strike the sort of balance for which WGIG and WSIS are calling, governments must make an active effort to include private firms and standards bodies in their deliberative process.

The WGIG Report Outlines Its View for the Future of Governance

On July 18, 2005, the WGIG presented its much-anticipated report in Geneva. It discussed three significant items:

First, WGIG created a working definition of Internet governance as “the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.” This definition includes the assignment of domain names, cyber security, and development.  

Second, it proposed a multi-stakeholder forum to coordinate discussion at the international, national, and regional levels.

Third, it outlined four possible models for oversight. This section of the report will draw the most attention from policy makers. The models are:

1. Creation of a Global Internet Council, which would replace the U.S. Commerce Department’s role in governance;

2. Privatization of ICANN, with ICANN retaining control over the DNS, with no need for a new specific oversight organization

3. Creation of a global forum for discussion. The International Internet Council would work closely with ICANN and make sure that no single government has a preeminent role in Internet governance; and

4. Construction of three new bodies—for governance, oversight, and coordination—and creation of a reformed, internationalized ICANN, which would be part of the U.N.

Which Way WSIS?

WSIS leaders should take comfort in the fact that access to the Internet continues to increase for all people. Internet governance as an ongoing international discussion that involves all stakeholders, not a mere task to be handed off to a new bureaucracy or government agency. In order to make development and governance worth the effort, WSIS must encourage the free exchange of information and culture over the Internet—and finally broach the topic of state-sponsored filtering. If WSIS focuses on these goals, it can provide a workable holistic approach toward Internet governance.

Does Governance Mean More Government? 

Still, at some level, many people understandably cringe at the phrase “Internet governance.” The Internet is loath to be governed, particularly by state actors and large bureaucracies. Clearly, an oversight model that calls for no new government involvement in the Internet—WGIG’s second model for oversight—is the best solution.

Given that the WGIG report listed three proposed models that involve more government oversight versus one that seemingly retains the status quo, it is easy to understand the fears of advocates against Internet governance by governments.  

Prior to the WSIS meeting in Tunis, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R- Minn.) made the case to keep the Internet out of the U.N.’s hands: “The first priority for the United Nations must be fundamental reform…rather than any expansion of its authority and responsibilities. The Internet has flourished under U.S. supervision, oversight, and private sector involvement.”

Cyber-hegemony: The U.S. Takes the Internet

Sen. Coleman is correct in making the case against U.N. control of the Internet—but the U.S. shouldn’t control it, either. The Internet would best be governed by an independent, nongovernmental organization, free of politics.

Yet, on June 30, 2005 the U.S. government ruffled feathers in the Internet governance community when it stated its intent to maintain control of ICANN and the DNS. In a controversial “Declaration of Principles,” the U.S. argued that in order to preserve the “security and stability” of the Internet and the economic transactions that take place over it, it would exercise unilateral control over the DNS.

This action contradicts an earlier U.S. position, which said that management of the DNS would be best handled in the private sector, not by a national government. In a response to comments regarding its 1998 white paper, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration called for private sector control over DNS, stating that, “neither national governments acting as sovereigns nor intergovernmental organizations acting as representatives of governments should participate in management of Internet names and addresses.”

Governance organizations have a role in deciding technical specifications that encourage the free flow of information. Governments, however, tend to limit information. ICANN and other Internet governance organizations should be free from the political powers of both individual countries and global bodies. The future prosperity of the Internet depends upon its freedom.