Ominous Developments on the “Internet Governance” Front

The future of Internet governance is starting to look more and more worrisome, and that should concern anyone interested in the Net as a platform for free and open global communication.  This past week brought us a Declaration by the major Internet standards-setting organizations — ICANN, the Internet Society, the Internet Architecture Board, the World Wide Web Consortium, among others – expressing “strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance,” and calling for “an ongoing effort to address Internet Governance challenges . . .  towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation” and for ”accelerating the globalization of ICANN and [Internet numbering]  functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.”

There’s a fair bit of complicated background and subtext here amidst the gobbledygook of international bureaucratese.  Milton Mueller, over on the Internet Governance Forum,  describes this as “the core Internet institutions abandoning the US government” – which may be something of an exaggeration, but captures some features of what is happening.

But this is more than just blowback from the Snowden revelations and push-back against the US’s prominent position in many of the major Internet governance institutions.  As it happens, I’m all for accelerating the “globalization” of Internet governance, and have said as much for decades; I think that policy-making for the Net — Internet-wide rulemaking binding on all Internet users (as opposed to, say, rule-making processes applicable only to US users, or French users, or Brazilian users, etc.)  – can only be accomplished legitimately by institutions that collectively have some claim to represent the people of the world, all of whom will be affected by Internet-wide rules.  We are, after all, all created equal, and each of us has the right — the inalienable right, one might say — to participate in those processes by which the rules that will be binding upon us are made.

This “multi-stakeholder” governance model may help bring that into being — though I have my serious doubts that it will.  It’s the “participation on an equal footing” by “all governments” that has me worried.  The governments of the world (including ours) have in recent years become increasingly unhappy with and frustrated by their inability to exert much control over Internet communication, and they have been looking for ways to involve themselves more directly in Internet policy-making.  We saw this last year, at  the “World Conference on International Telecommunications,” where there was a substantial push, led by governments not on anyone’s list of those where Internet freedom or freedom of expression generally, are  taken seriously (Russia, China, Zimbabwe, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Egypt  . . .) to get the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) a larger role in the setting of Internet rules and standards.  It was a ghastly idea; the US, the Europeans, and others pushed back, and the  effort was (fortunately) basically unsuccessful.

But that has just shifted the battleground elsewhere, to other international fora where the governments might gain a stronger foothold on Internet policy-making.  ICANN  (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), not surprisingly, is the likely target.  By virtue of its position of control over the Internet’s domain name system, ICANN possesses immense power should it choose to use it; it can – literally – bring the Internet to its knees, if it chose to do so, and it can exercise its gatekeeper function and control over a critical Internet resource to implement any number of policies — on questions of, say, anonymity, and privacy, and copyright infringement — on an Internet-wide basis.  

These functions, to be sure, are far removed from ICANN’s core  ”technical” functions of  database management and coordination within the Domain Name System.  But “mission creep” is a very powerful dynamic, and many of us have been shouting for years about the absence of any strong checks on ICANN’s forays into policy-making, or any mechanisms  in place that can assure us that ICANN is going to stick to its core mission.  Indeed, the only real check on ICANN’s expansion of its powers (other than the good faith of the ICANN Board of Directors) has been continuing US government oversight of ICANN’s operations – the very thing now, apparently, under attack.

And as it happens, over the past several months, there have been any number of alarming revelations about ICANN’s cozying up to  its “Government Advisory Committee” – an institution originally conceived of as a purely advisory body, which has now started insisting on a greater say (and perhaps even a veto) in ICANN operations and ICANN policy.  [Milton Mueller has been chronicling these developments in a 4-part series on "ICANN's Accountability Meltdown" over on the Internet Governance Forum website here,here,here, and here]. 

It’s an unfortunate combination.  If ICANN gives these unhappy governments a home for their efforts to exert greater control over Internet communications — using, perhaps, the pretext that the US government has proven itself somehow unworthy of its outsized role in these matters — the Internet will become a much, much less vibrant place than it is now.