The world of Internet governance can be a lonely one. I can’t tell you how many blank stares I’ve gotten when, upon meeting someone new, the question about what I do for a living comes up. At that point, the next question is usually something like, “Somebody runs the Internet? I thought it was the government,” or “Looks like rain, don’t you think?”
Generally speaking, people don’t tend to give a lot of thought to how the Internet is run, nor who runs it. Yet, the Internet is the late 20th century’s equivalent to the steam engine. Just as the steam engine enabled a shift from cottage industries to machine-based manufacturing sparking the Industrial Revolution, the Internet has become the driver of a new, knowledge-based economy, and has also radically altered the ways in which we communicate with each other.
On the surface, Internet governance may appear to be dry. When you start to dig a little deeper, though, it’s not a dry subject at all. It is, in fact a high stakes game where decisions are made that affect everything from the economy to freedom of speech, and not just in abstract, high-level ways. There are decisions that are made that have real world impacts on the day-to-day lives of people around the world, including Canadians.
This week the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) kicked off its Plenipotentiary Conference (PP10) in Guadalajara, Mexico. It’s a marathon event held every four years – three weeks of workshops, presentations, elections, and networking involving representatives from 192 nations, more than 700 companies and other national, regional and international organizations.
The ITU, which is an agency of the UN, regulates information and communication technology issues.The ITU has increasingly been working on issues related to Internet governance.
This is the first in a series of blogs that I will write over the next couple of weeks about Internet governance, the ITU and how and why these decision-making structures affect all of us. I believe these issues are very important and have the potential to affect the very foundations of many aspects of society, including the economy and how we communicate with each other.
The Internet is a rapidly developing world. When CIRA began 10 years ago, no-one could have anticipated the unparalleled growth we’ve seen in the Internet itself, nor could anyone have foreseen how integral it would become to the global economy and communications systems.
I believe that one of the main reasons that the Internet has been able to become such a strong economic and communications force is because of its openness, adaptability and resilience – a direct product of the bottoms-up, consensus-based decision-making processes through which it has been governed since its inception. This governance framework reflects the decentralized, bottoms-up, open nature of the Internet itself.
CIRA’s position is that this approach to Internet governance is central to safeguarding and preserving the characteristics of the Internet that have underpinned its success. I was pleased to hear the Government of Canada take a strong position on the roles and responsibilities of the actors on the Internet governance stage at PP10. In her policy statement to the PP10, Helen McDonald, Assistant Deputy Minister at Industry Canada, stated:
“The Union must avoid the temptation to dilute its impact by seeking authority over issues that are being addressed appropriately by other organizations.”
(Diplo-speak translation: Hey, ITU. Don’t try to muscle in on something that’s not your bailiwick.)
However, there appear to be many others who do not share this point of view. There are many nations that would like to see an intergovernmental treaty organization – like the ITU – in charge of the Internet.
Here’s an example:
There is a movement afoot at the ITU PP10 that would see it take over, or at the very least be able to exert its influence on, the Internet. Earlier in the week, the Russian Federation, along with a group of former Soviet nations, filed a proposal that would see the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) to ICANN – the organization that has been coordinating and governing the Internet since 1999 – scrapped. In its place, they proposed, would be an ITU group, effectively giving the ITU a veto over ICANN decisions.
I see changing the governance structure as problematic for many reasons. As I stated earlier, it’s the bottom-up, organic, multi-stakeholder approach that has enabled the Internet to be what it is today. And, there are currently intergovernmental treaty bodies that participate in governance processes, notably the ITU and the IGF. However, what we don’t need is the imposition of such bureaucratic institutions and their cumbersome processes, on the decision-making processes for the Internet.
I will blog about this in-depth in my next post, but here’s the condensed version of why I think this is wrong.
These large, multi-lateral institutions are burdened with incredibly bureaucratic processes that would increase costs associated with governance and slow down both the decision-making processes and the Internet’s evolution. A multi-lateral treaty-based institution would exclude or impair the open, transparent and equal participation of business, individuals and civil society – the true stakeholders and drivers of the Internet. In my opinion, it only makes sense to have the people and organizations that live and breathe the Internet at the table where the decisions are made.
Organizations like the ITU are hierarchical, top-down bodies that exist in a hyper-political environment. As such, they are susceptible to political intervention, influence and trade-offs.
Coinciding with my thinking on this, Canada today withdrew its candidacy for one of the seats on the UN Security Council, leaving Portugal to take one of the two open seats on the Council (the other was Germany). This is the first time in history that Canada has been unsuccessful in securing a seat on the Council. The fact that two European nations took the vacant seats means that five of the 15 members on the Council are also members of the European Union.
Canada’s withdrawal ends weeks of behind the scenes wheeling and dealing. In fact, according to some diplomats, Canada’s bid was doubtful, because Canada spent less time and energy lobbying UN delegates for votes than it had in years past. I have a hard time believing that a similar governance structure would benefit the Internet world. Putting aside the time it takes for decisions to be made by the UN, do we really want decisions about the Internet made on the basis of which nation can wine and dine the most delegates?
When a group of like-minded nations holds the balance of power (or, at least some significant sway) over an institution, like the EU ostensibly holds on the Security Council, I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking that decisions made by the institution will benefit those nations, or at least will not be detrimental to them.
How would this work if a UN body were put in charge of the Internet? What if a group of nations with no democratic traditions, protections for free speech or commitment to a free market economy held the balance of power over the most powerful communications tool – the real driver of much of the world’s economy – of the past 50 years? The fact is the majority of the UN’s (and the ITU’s) membership do not fall into the democratic, free economy nation category.
I mean, let’s be frank here. Do we want Iran, who famously shut down the Internet within their borders to quell dissent, in the driver’s seat? Or, what about the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who have been bullying Canada’s Research in Motion to get them loosen up the security on Blackberry devices so that they can monitor their citizens? Or, maybe China, who pushed Google to censor search results within its borders?
There are discussions going on behinds closed doors that potentially could have wide-reaching impacts.
On a related note, the UN currently has an open public consultation on “Enhanced Cooperation on International Public Policy Issues Pertaining to the Internet.” It’s an opportunity to have your voice heard on the topic of Internet governance.
How do you feel about multilateral governance of the Internet?