Currently the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) based in California administers the technical and policy aspects of the core structure of the internet meaning it coordinates things like the Domain Name System (DNS), Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, space allocation, protocol identifier assignment, generic (gTLD) and country code (ccTLD) Top-Level Domain name system management, and root server system management functions. Just as importantly it defines how the names and numbers of the internet should be organised, so for example in 2010 it allowed top level domain names to be in non-latin script for the first time.
In September 2011 India, Brazil and South Africa following a conference on internet governance began looking to create a coalition of states to control the internet involving the creation of a new global body that would be within the United Nations system. A couple of months later in October the government of India took the next step by proposing the UN Committee for Internet related policies (CIRP) to the United Nations General Assembly.
CIRP is proposed to be a 50 member intergovernmental body with the members “chosen on the basis of equitable geographical representation” and “The CIRP will report directly to the UN General Assembly annually” with its budget likewise from the United Nations but with its research funded by domain registration fees.
“The CIRP shall be mandated to undertake the following tasks:
i. Develop and establish international public policies with a view to ensuring coordination and coherence in cross-cutting Internet-related global issues;
ii. Coordinate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the Internet, including global standards setting;
iii. Facilitate negotiation of treaties, conventions and agreements on Internet-related public policies;
iv. Address developmental issues related to the internet;
v. Promote the promotion and protection of all human rights, namely, civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights, including the Right to Development;
vi. Undertake arbitration and dispute resolution, where necessary; and,
vii. Crisis management in relation to the Internet.”
The United Nations is set to decide on the proposal by December 2012 at a meeting which is to be held in Dubai.
N.B. The other proposal of relevance at the time of writing is that internet governance should be handed over to the International Telecommunications Union, as this is an intergovernmental UN agency most of the arguments in this debate will be relevant to this proposal as well.
The internet is global, things on the internet do not just affect one country, indeed they often don’t just affect a small group of countries but affect every country. This is especially true of issues of internet governance as setting the rules for the internet and the architecture has to be for the whole internet not isolated bits of it. The function that ICANN currently performs is one that should rightfully be done internationally in the interests of all the nations. This is not the case at the moment as the United States has essentially has a monopoly on internet governance. While ICANN is an independent non-profit body it is under contract from the U.S. department of Commerce and is subject to U.S. laws.
The United States already abuses its control over the internet. It has become commonplace for the U.S. to seize domains, as it did with Bodog.com, regardless of where their domain name registrar, or the owner of the website, is based. It can do this easily because the companies that have the contract to manage the generic top level names such as .com and .org are based within the United States. As it is U.S. based the company with these top level domains has to comply with U.S. law so when it is asked to shut down a site even if it is a foreign site with a foreign registrar it will do so. Actions like this show that the United States is only interested in its own power over the internet. It is not interested in the rights of other countries and owners of websites that are registered in those countries highlighting a need to a change to a more multinational system.
While the US government may have more influence over ICANN than other governments it does not control ICANN. This lack of control is demonstrated by the organisation being willing to do things that the United States is opposed to. For example ICANN the rolled out of the new top level domain names which both the United States and European Union were opposed to, and was incidentally were supported by developing countries.
It is governments who are in charge of setting public policy within countries so it makes sense that these same governments should set public policy in the international sphere; this is why international organisations have been set up and why it is governments that are represented in them. Internet governance should also be the purview of governments on account of the wide range of issues it covers. These include who gets access to the technical resources of the internet, intellectual property, participation in the online economy (which now has an immense impact on the physical economy as well - just consider how the financial markets around the world are interconnected in part as a result of the internet), freedom of expression, and security which ultimately can affect national security and the high politics if balance of power. Private companies and civil society will inevitably only represent a minority of opinions within these countries and cannot be said to truly represent their country, the right place for them is in providing advice to their governments rather than through direct control such as that currently held by ICANN.
It is wrong that civil society should have reduced influence over the governance of the internet with governments making all the key decisions. Many governments around the world are not democratic and so cannot be said to represent their people while even those that are democratic are prone to advancing the interests of minorities of their constituents as shown by treaties and legislation such as SOPA and ACTA. Governments of all stripes whether authoritarian or democratic do not have a good record of transparency; ICANN on the other hand does. ICANN works on a "bottom-up, consensus-driven, multi-stakeholder model" meaning that ICANN is very inclusive bringing together governments, experts, private companies and ngos, potentially even individuals can get involved and have their say.
One of the best things about the proposal to create CIRP is that it simply brings the internet into line with other areas of international communication and the global economy by bringing the internet into the United Nations system. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for example is the body that allocates radio spectrums and satellite orbits, in other words it does for telecommunications what ICANN does for the internet, and it is a United Nations agency. The ITU has 193 countries as members but is also open to the private sector and academia, just as CIRP would be. Having internet governance working through the United Nations would therefore mean using a tried and tested method of governance.
The United States is unlikely to give up control and no one can force it to do, the ITU itself has accepted that it could not do so, so creating CIRP would really be a pointless increase in bureaucracy. There is already government involvement in ICANN through the Governmental Advisory Committee so there is little need for another body giving governments more control over the internet. If the United States does not give up control voluntarily then there is likely to be added problems arising from conflicts between the ICANN and CIRP.
The internet is used by everyone and so should be governed in such a way as reflects the desires of the users of the internet; and this is somewhere where internet users are often at odds with their governments. Where the freedom of individuals are concerned it is undoubtedly the bottom up system of ICANN which will be less restrictive than the option of top down control through an international organisation in which governments have the lion’s share of the power. While governments are meant to be protecting the interests of their people and their rights it is rare that this is actually the case. More usually it is states that are violating the rights of their citizens both online and offline as is shown by the human rights records of countries like Iran and China. On the internet government involvement equally regularly means attempts by states to create restrictions and prevent the internet from being a place where citizens have freedom of expression. This can even be the case in democracies, for example in South Korea a critic of the government who called the president names found his twitter account blocked as a result.
While this might be a valid argument if the United Nations Committee for Internet Related Policies means handing over governance to an individual state it is difficult to question that collectively through the United Nations system states have generally worked to improve citizens quality of life and human rights. CIRP will be just such a multilateral institution so will not be a threat to freedom on the internet. It is even suggested that the mandate for the new organisation include “the promotion and protection of all human rights, namely, civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights, including the Right to Development”. Even those who don’t want governmental control accept that there is a need for some form of constitution with a bill of rights and some kind of board for review – thus showing that under ICANN the internet is not governed in the interests of the users.
The intention for the creation of CIRP is to give more power to governments, and particularly to authoritarian governments that wish much greater control over the internet. If CIRP is meant to enable “enhanced cooperation to enable governments, on an equal footing, to carry out their roles and responsibilities in international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet” this may result in CIRP becoming an international organisation that would impose censorship on the internet. This is practically an inevitable result as the main tool of government is regulation. In the case of the internet such regulation will mean more controls on what users can and cannot do online.
The result is likely to be similar to the U.N. Human Rights Council where many of the world’s biggest human rights abusers are regularly elected and Israel and the U.S. are constantly investigated while a blind eye is turned to many abuses. At the very least such control will provide an enabler that will allow countries that want to censor the internet to shelter behind the international organisation. India’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal has said the solution to this problem of objectionable content online should be permanent "That will only happen when we talk to all the stakeholders and form such a mechanism under which any objectionable content is removed,"
CIRP would give some influence to authoritarian governments; among 50 governments represented some are bound to be from non-democracies. This influence would however be counterbalanced by the democracies that are represented. The United Nations have a good track record of including as many as possible through the tradition of making decisions by consensus which will prevent states that might wish to use CIRP in ways that other states would not agree with from succeeding.
The current system for control of the internet has been successful in managing phenomenal growth in the internet with very few problems. ICANN has been a success precisely because it does not focus on politics but on making the internet as efficient as possible, in contrast the telecommunications sector remained static and costly for a long time as a result of government interference. Experts such as Rajnesh Singh argue ICANN’s “multi-stakeholder approach has proven to be nimble and effective in ensuring the stability, security, and availability of the global infrastructure, while still giving sovereign nations the flexibility to enact and enforce relevant Internet legislation within their borders… This model has been a key contributor to the breathtaking evolution and expansion of the Internet worldwide.” It is this openness that has contributed to the internet generating 10% of GDP growth in the rich world over the last fifteen years.
The change to CIRP would cause a lot of disruption; it would mean changing the current bottom up model of regulation to a top down model such as that used by the ITU. The White House has highlighted the likely effect this would have on the internet; “Centralized control over the Internet through a top-down government approach would put political dealmakers, rather than innovators and experts, in charge of the future of the Internet. This would slow the pace of innovation, hamper global economic development, and lead to an era of unprecedented control over what people can say and do online.”
ICANN has not been very supportive of growth in the developing world, as is to be expected of a body that is dominated by rich world governments and corporations. Sub-Saharan Africa for example only has three accredited registrars that provision domain names compared to the four that Denmark alone has. Changing to CIRP would help rebalance the control of the internet to the global south where the majority of future growth is bound to occur. Even if ICANN has been successful in managing the growth of the internet as it spread through the developed world it is not in a good position to be as successful in the future.
Moreover as the internet becomes more ubiquitous politics will inevitably intrude regardless of whether those controlling the internet want it to or not. Creating new top level domain names is inherently political. Saudi Arabia for example objected to a number of proposed domain names such as .gay, .bar, .islam, and .baby, it is clear that in cases like this governments need to decide in order to avoid there being domain names that are offensive to some users of the internet.
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