Byron Holland is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA). View bio
Last week, I laid out some of the higher level issues around Internet governance and some of the discussions that are currently going on in Mexico at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). In this blog post, my intent is to explain two different approaches to Internet governance, and give my reasons why I believe the multi-stakeholder approach is best.
The question at hand: Do we stick with the current multi-stakeholder approach, or, as many would argue, do we move to a UN-style multi-lateral approach?
First off, however, I think I need to clarify one of the basic issues. The term Internet governance, in my mind, encompasses both the policy and technical issues inherent in the Internet. The two cannot be separated – they are inextricably linked.
Many nations, including Russia and Syria, would like to see the authority over the Internet moved to a UN-style organization, like the ITU, with a multi-lateral governance structure.
A multi-lateral approach to governance really has been the model of choice for international entities for many years (in fact, this approach started with the ITU when it was formed in 1865). A multi-lateral approach has been the backbone of international cooperation: the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, and the World Trade Organization all operate within a multi-lateral model. Simply put, in theory the multi-lateral approach gives a voice to nation states in a forum to discuss issues of international importance.
This approach works for many organizations, there’s no doubt. And, the UN is a great organization that has accomplished many things. It is also frustratingly bureaucratic and slow.
ICANN, the organization that’s currently ‘in charge’ of the Internet is governed by a multi-stakeholder structure that includes governments, operators, the technical community, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and others.
Simply put, it is a mix of both public and private entities at the regional, national and international levels. It involves ensuring that the parties that have a stake in the successful operation of the Internet have a say in how the Internet is run. And, there are many more parties involved in looking after the Internet than just ICANN: the NRO, ARIN, the IETF, and many other organizations play a role in making sure the Internet is secure, and operates without downtime.
Relatively speaking, the Internet is still new. It also represents an entirely new entity, like nothing the world has ever seen. It transcends nation states, and really turns our commonly held notions of governance models upside down. Not to sound too pie in the sky, but the Internet really does give a voice to the voiceless.
The current system isn’t perfect. There’s no doubt that some nations have more say than others. It’s true that many countries in the developing world are not as connected to the Internet as in the developed world. Yes, these countries should have a say in the direction the Internet is taking. There’s no question that the Internet is an essential resource for economic and social development in the 21st century. I do not, however, believe that the current parties behind the activity at the ITU have the best interest of the developing world at heart.
I’ll be perfectly frank. Much of the rhetoric we’re hearing out of the Plenipotentiary Conference (PP10) is based on extremist ideologies. I find it hard to believe that a country where only 8,000 computers are connected to the Internet, such as Syria, is truly championing the Internet as a tool for development. Can we trust a country that blocks access to many websites, including Facebook, Hotmail, YouTube, all .Blogspot sites and many, many others in the driver’s seat for what is essentially one of the most powerful communications tools in the history of modern civilization?
If the ITU were serious about expanding the global reach of the Internet and ensuring the voices of the developing world are heard, it would do better by focusing energies on expanding broadband access.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that these ITU meetings are closed, and are informed by documents that are secretive. As of yet, I have not been able to access any of the resolutions that have been passed at PP10, including Resolution 101. This resolution, from what I can gather from Twitter, involves Internet governance, and the multi-stakeholder approach. As an active participant with ICANN, and as vice-chair of the Country Code Names Supporting Organisation (ccNSO) of ICANN, I find this particularly infuriating. There are discussions taking place at PP10 about restructuring ICANN, yet a request by ICANN’s President and CEO Rod Beckstrom to attend the PP10 was declined.
Interesting note: I understand from Kieren McCarthy, who is attending the PP10, that discussions about Internet governance and the role of ITU have ceased due to “bad-tempered and, at times, surreal discussions that stretched through the weekend.” The ITU may have reached an impasse on those resolutions that would have seen it make steps toward taking control of the Internet.
Isn’t it ironic that the ITU has failed to take control of the Internet for the very same reason that many of us thought them controlling the Internet was problematic? For once (and I hope for the last time), bureaucratic delays and the deeply entrenched position of a minority of opinions win!
The Internet gives voice to the voiceless, and has the power to advance the spread of democracy and progress. Are we willing to give that power to countries who exercise extreme censorship of all things, the Internet included, within their borders?