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Nov 242012

As could be expected, when there are yet again moves made to pass the job of Internet Governance into the hands of the ITU, there is a huge wave of objections from the Americans; some of whom are objecting more from a reflex anti-UN position (or a wish to see the US remain “in control” of the Internet) rather than a more considered objection.

What is perhaps more surprising is the EU’s objections to the ITU taking control.

What Is Internet Governance?

In a very real sense, there is no such thing as the Internet; there are merely a large number of different networks that agree to use the Internet standards – protocol numbers, network addresses, names, etc. With the exception of names this is all pretty invisible to ordinary users of the Internet; at least when it works.

There is nothing to stop different networks from changing the Internet standards, or coming up with their own networking standards. Except of course that a network’s customers might very well object if they suddenly can’t reach Google because of different standards. Historically there has been a migration towards Internet standards rather than away from them.

In a very real sense, this is governance by consent. At least by the network operators.

It may be worthwhile to list those things that the current Internet Governance doesn’t do :-

  • It does not control network traffic flows or peering arrangements. Such control is exercised by individual networks and/or governments.
  • It does not control the content of the Internet. Not only is censureship not part of the current governance mission; it isn’t even within their power. Any current censureship is exercised by the individual networks and/or governments.
  • It does not control access, pricing, or any other form of network control. Your access to the Internet is controlled by your ISP and any laws enacted by your government.

There is probably a long, long list of other things that the current Internet Governance does not do. To a very great extent, the current governance is about technical governance.

What’s So Bad About The Status Quo?

“The Internet” is currently governed by ICANN (the “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”) which is a US-based (and controlled) non-profit corporation. Whilst there are plenty of those who complain about ICANN and how it performs it’s work, the key metric of how well they have performed is that just one of their areas of responsibility – the control of the top-level domains in the DNS – has resulted in any alternatives.

And those alternatives are really not very successful; as someone who runs an institutional DNS infrastructure, I would be under pressure to support alternative roots if they were successful enough to interest normal people. No such requests have reached me.

So you could very well argue that technically ICANN has done a perfectly reasonable job.

But politically, it is a far more difficult situation. ICANN is a US-based corporation whose authority over the Internet standards is effectively granted to it by the US Department of Commerce. This grates with anyone who is not a US citizen, which is now by far a majority of the Internet population.

Historically the Internet is a US invention (although the historical details are quite a bit more complex than that; it is widely acknowledged that the packet switching nature of the ARPAnet was inspired by work done by a British computer scientist), so it is not unreasonable that Internet governance started as a US organisation.

But in the long term, if it remains so, it will be undemocratic and tyrannical; whilst the US is a democratic government it is only US citizens that can hold their government to account with a vote. The rest of us have no say in how the US government surpervises ICANN which is an untenable situation.

What About The ITU ?

The key to any change in how Internet governance is managed, is to make as few changes as possible. If we accept that ICANN has managed reasonably well at the technical governance, there is no overriding reason to take that away from them. If we accept that control of ICANN has to be passed to an international body, then what about the ITU ?

Many people object to the idea of the ITU being in charge for a variety of reasons, but probably the biggest reason of all is that it is a UN body and certain people start frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of the UN.

But if you look at the history of the ITU, you will see that despite the beaurocratic nature of the organisation (which predates the UN by a considerable number of years), it has managed to maintain international telecommunications through two world wars. A not inconsiderable achievement even if it succeeded because it had to succeed.

Time For A Compromise

International agreement is all about making all parties equally satisfied … or at the very least equally disastisfied, with a solution that comes as close as possible to giving everyone what they want. A seemingly impossible task.

But despite spending nowhere near enough time studying the issues, one solution does occur to me. Hand over the authority by which ICANN operates to the ITU with the proviso that any changes to the mandate of  ICANN (in particular giving it additional authority) should be subject to oversite by the UN as a whole; and of course subject to UN Security Council vetos.

Of course this is not a decision that should be made hastily; given that the main issue at stake is “political” rather than technical, there is no reason why the decision to do something has to be made quickly. But it does need to be made within 10 years.

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