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20 Nov 2005
Months of political maneuvering have led up to the ITU WSIS meeting in Tunis, with increasing political pressure to pry control of the Internet from ICANN and the US government. Even if you grant that ICANN had the control to give up (which it doesn't, but we'll talk about that some other time), all the arguing about governance distracted from the original goal of WSIS which was to improve Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the third world. The day before the meeting started, the meeting's agenda appeared, cleverly phrased so that everyone can declare victory even though nothing's changed, and they can get back to the real work of WSIS.
The relevant parts of the agenda are in paragraphs 63 through 82 which call upon the UN Secretary-General to convene the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), with a long list of topics to address, meeting for the first time in Athens probably in June 2006. Fans of international oversight can point to this as the first step to true international control of the Net. But fans of leaving things the way they are can point to paragraph 77 which clarifies that the IGF will be limited to blowing hot air:
The IGF would have no oversight function and would not replace existing arrangements, mechanisms, institutions or organisations, but would involve them and take advantage of their expertise. It would be constituted as a neutral, non-duplicative and non-binding process. It would have no involvement in day-to-day or technical operations of the Internet.
So the coast is clear for ICANN, right? Not quite.
Paragraph 39 of the agenda talks about "the necessity to further promote, develop and implement in cooperation with all stakeholders a global culture of cyber-security." Paragraph 40 addresses the "importance of the prosecution of cybercrime, including cybercrime committed in one jurisdiction but having effects in another." In Paragraph 41, "We resolve to deal effectively with the significant and growing problem posed by spam." Paragraph 42 affirms "that measures undertaken to ensure Internet stability and security, to fight cybercrime and to counter spam, must protect and respect the provisions for privacy and freedom of expression." Paragraph 43 "reiterate[s] our commitments to the positive uses of the Internet and other ICTs and to take appropriate actions and preventive measures, as determined by law, against abusive uses of ICTs". Paragraph 44 addresses "the importance of countering terrorism in all its forms and manifestations on the Internet, while respecting human rights and in compliance with other obligations under international law." And in Paragraph 45 "We underline the importance of the security, continuity and stability of the Internet, and the need to protect the Internet and other ICT networks from threats and vulnerabilities." Subsequent paragraphs address the opportunitities of e-business, e-government, and advocate increasing global connectivity while avoiding anything that smells even faintly like telco-style settlements.
What do all of these issues have in common? That ICANN has never dealt with any of them. There are reasonable arguments to be made about the most appropriate places to address all of these issues, but it is not hard to conclude that ICANN has so myopically focused on minutiae like the details of WHOIS records, that it hasn't even thought about its role in addressing the issues that matter. I attended last year's spam conference and this year's cybersecurity conference held by the ITU, both of which were quite good, and both of which could equally well have been sponsored by ICANN had ICANN not totally failed to connect with the governments of every country other than the US.
To me the Paragraph 77 language above says that the IGF will stay away from the nits that ICANN handles, but has free rein to work on all of the important areas where ICANN has abdicated any role. Imagine that the IGF comes up with something useful in these areas, with likely help from the ITU, that their processes are predictable and open (another place where ICANN fails miserably), and they demonstrate responsibility by not doing any of the foolish things that a few small but loud countries have been asking for. In a couple of years, people will start to ask why ICANN's functions, which they have always claimed to be modest and technical, shoudn't be folded into an IGF whose processes work and that is actually the international consensus based organization that ICANN purports to be.
This battle is ICANN's to lose. Will they rise to the challenge?
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