There are always defining moments in anything’s lifetime and the Internet is no exception.
A meeting in Geneva on 10-12 December promises to be one of them - to define what is, what was and what shall become of the global electronic medium known as the Internet.
The World Summit on the Information Society, organised by the International Telecommunications Union, will see the heads of over 60 governments get together, discuss and hopefully agree on where we go from here.
It’s been a very long time coming. In fact, it is a year or two late, with the result that the topics to be covered have outgrown the meeting. It doesn’t help that there are several topics of great import but huge controversy. The chief among these is Internet governance. In short: who gets to run the Internet?
While other vital aspects are sure to get some coverage, it is this topic that looks set to override the others. And for good reason. There is a clearly definable split across the world over who should be put in charge of running the Net’s vital infrastructure.
The United States, Europe and English-speaking partners such as Australia favour the existing private-company organisation, ICANN. Whereas developing nations, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and others all want a recognised international body to run the show, ITU.
This clash has already seen some remarkable events. An extra five-day session was quickly arranged earlier this month when agreement proved impossible at the 12-day pre-conference meeting in September. Even this extra session was not enough and another high-level meeting has actually been arranged during the weekend before the conference itself.
The level of disagreement can be seen in the documents produced at the end of the November extra session. When it comes to the thorny issue of Internet governance, there are two almost entirely contradictory statements within the same body of text - one listed as an “alternative”.
This was the original paragraph in the meetings official “Plan of Action”: “Call on the Secretary General of ITU, in his capacity as chairman of HLSOC, in collaboration with relevant international organizations, to establish and coordinate a task force to investigate and make proposals on the governance of Internet by 2005, addressing the following:
- A universally representative solution on the international management of Internet resources, including but not limited to root servers, domain names, and Internet Protocol address assignment.
- Preliminary work towards the establishment of regional root-servers.
- Development and deployment of a broad-based internationalised domain and host name solution that is compatible with the current DNS architecture.
- Coordination and implementation of internationalised domain name strategy among country code registries interested in implementing internationalised domain name capabilities in their top level domain names.”
This is very clearly a vote of confidence in ITU and the insistence of a move away from ICANN. However, immediately after this paragraph comes the following “alternative text”.
“A private sector led body should undertake the international management of the Internet with governments serving in an advisory capacity with respect to limited public policy issues.
“The policy making processes for both the technical and public policy aspects of Internet governance should be open and transparent, developed through a bottom up policy making process which takes full account of the needs and views of the global Internet community.
“Government cooperation and coordination with respect to international Internet related public policy issues should be done on an ad hoc basis and not through the current intergovernmental structure of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).” [Our emphasis]
You can’t actually get much more different than that but they are both sat side-by-side. The same happens again in the Declaration of Principles:
Original: “The management of the Internet encompasses both technical and policy issues. The private sector has had and should continue to have an important role in the development of the Internet [at the technical level].”
Alternative: “The management of the Internet encompasses both technical and public policy issues. The private sector has had an important role in the development of the Internet. The private sector should continue to play an important role at the technical and commercial levels.” [Our emphasis]
Although there is no mention of ICANN, the bold text highlighted in the above paragraphs will immediately be recognised by observers of ICANN as the mantras endlessly repeated by ICANN officers and staff.
So the battle lines are there for all to see - highly unusual in a meeting such as this. Obviously in the meeting just prior to the actual conference the sides will attempt to come to agreement but with the depth of feeling as it is, this is extremely improbable.
Plus the issue is of such importance that there is the real risk it may take over the whole conference and disrupt other vital agreements in the first worldwide conference by governments regarding Internet technologies.
The responses we got from the chief spokesman for the meeting, Gary Fowlie of ITU, were not exactly encouraging. He told us how 80 per cent of the issues at stake were already agreed, how the meeting was the first time such issues had been dealt with on a global scale, that they were still focused on all the issues - not just the controversial ones. However each answer was in response to the same question: “What are the organisers doing to ensure that the issue of Internet governance doesn’t take over the entire meeting?”
Why so vital?
So why is this issue of Internet governance so important and why is there such a strong split across the globe?
The tussle between ICANN and ITU for control of the Internet is as old as the Internet itself. It was always going to come to a head and the Geneva meeting is finally it - the make or break moment.
ICANN is a quasi-autonomous arm of the US government, a private Californian company of technical and business experts created in November 1998. Its remit was to oversee the increasingly global Internet with a view to becoming autonomous in a few years.
The ITU (International Telecommunications Union) on the other hand is the body that has been responsible for the roll-out of virtually every form of modern communication. It was started 140 years ago by countries across the world to standardise the telegram and has been at the forefront of every international telecommunication effort since.
Logic would appear to dictate that the ITU be in charge of the Internet. And it would be so except for the extraordinary history of the Internet.
Once the potential of networking an increasing number of computers across the world using phone lines had been grasped, the ITU outlined its view of the future.
It demonstrated the OSI stack that would be used to get computers to communicate with each other. It would be supplied by the huge incumbent telecoms providers and its evolution would be overseen by the ITU.
Its failure to implement this vision should be gratefully received by every man, woman and child on the planet. What arose instead was the vision of the (at that time) liberal and democratic US government. It had developed technology that was independent of the telecoms supplier and allowed computers to communicate directly with one another - it was TCP/IP and it forms the basis of the Internet.
This equipment allowed anyone to set up their own network. It was also far cheaper that ITU’s approach. The only constraint the US government put on it was that people made their network freely available to everyone. The technology was immediately seized upon by academics and computer scientists across the globe - a fact that has lent the Internet its culture borne of free speech, freely available information and software, and fierce independence from any form of control.
The ITU fought in vain to push its vision and as a result has always be viewed with suspicion by the Internet community.
A brief history of ICANN
The US government made a second excellent decision when it realised it could not be expected to be in control of this rapidly growing global network, and so set up ICANN. Originally answerable to the government, ICANN would soon split off and become an independent organisation that would keep the spirit of the Internet alive, promoting its values across the globe.
It was only here that things went wrong and eventually led us to the situation we now find ourselves in - the world fighting over who should be in charge of the Net.
The people chosen to run ICANN in 1998 were those who knew more about the technology than anyone else - computer scientists. It was an apparently logical decision but tragically flawed. The characteristics that make a computer scientist are not those that make a good politician or decision-maker.
No doubt believing they were acting in the Internet’s best interests, the ICANN decision-making process soon became an abomination. The ICANN Board agreed in private what was going to happen to their invention against the hordes of people outside all clamoring for a piece of the action and it then implemented it despite whatever opposition there might be. It rewrote its rules to make sure outsiders weren't admitted to the inner sanctum so it could keep control of which way the medium went.
The result of all this was increasing fury by those with a legitimate interest. It wasn’t long before the smell of revolution was in the air.
Recognising the risk, new head Stuart Lynn drew up a reorganisation of ICANN in which the status quo could be maintained but governments voices (Western mostly) were given far more weight. The idea was to save the ICANN ideal. Once everything was in place, he stepped down to help new head and Australian Paul Twomey sell the new ICANN.
But with an ICANN that has still yet to prove itself as willing to listen, with government now making significant decisions on how the Internet is run, what exactly is the difference between it and the ITU?
Plenty. And it explains exactly why there is such a deep split over the matter. ICANN is still beholden to the US government. Not for very much longer - it has recently been a three-year extension on its contract and it is widely expected that after that period ICANN will break away and become its own body.
Nevertheless, the fact that the US government is still fundamentally in charge of the Internet is of grave concern to a large number of countries across the globe, for obvious reasons. Even when ICANN does break away, those nations point out that the organisation running the Internet is a Californian company, created and run through the American system of law.
Not only this but ICANN is almost exclusively made up of English-speaking Westerners. Western governments are the only ones that have a real influence. When you are talking about a clearly global medium, it is essential that a truly international body be in charge, argue China, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and many others.
The US, Europe and countries such as Australia clearly see the advantage of having disproportionate control over the organisation running the Internet and so they are extremely keen to keep things as they are. Their argument against the ITU taking over is that it would give different countries’ governments control over how they run the Internet in their own country and so would enable them to censor their citizens and so damage the democratising power of the Internet.
In the Internet community - which has little power at the Geneva meeting but remains extremely influential - opinions are split. Distrust and dislike of ICANN is rampant. However, new head Twomey is beginning to dispel some (but definitely not all) of those concerns. Many want to see the ITU play a stronger role in order to make ICANN accountable but then few want to see the destruction of ICANN because of what it represents - the victory of people over government. Besides, the Internet community still has at least some influence in ICANN. In the ITU, it is the governments that run the show.
And so the Internet sits at a crossroads. The ITU - which, don’t forget, is organising the Geneva meeting in December - is desperate to get control of the Internet. This is its one big - and only - chance. It has a huge international meeting on the Internet where dozens of world governments are in support of it. ICANN will be an independent body within three years and is currently in transition and so at its weakest.
ICANN meanwhile knows it only has to cling on. It has the support of Western governments and the grudging backing of the Internet community. If it survives, the ITU will never be in a situation to take control again.
And the reality?
The truth of the matter though is that ICANN will survive. The countries with the most Internet expertise and, crucially, all but one of the 13 root servers that the Internet runs on are defending it.
However there are some powerful names that want the ITU given a bigger role. To try to beat them down would destabilise the Internet as a whole. The ICANN-run Internet is only one of many possible Internets. The technology to build entirely new networks is already there. If countries feel that strongly against a US company running the show they may threaten to set up their own networks, essentially ruining the one ideal of ICANN - an open, worldwide network.
That, fortunately, remains an unlikely scenario. However it is all too probable that the two sides in this vital argument will fail to come to agreement or compromise, and a self-defeating situation be set up. We could still see battles over Internet procedures and protocols in a decade. In the meantime, large chunks of the Net could rise and fall, different systems make areas unaccessible, and a coherent worldwide solution to tackle such problems as viruses and spam vanish - to everyone’s detriment.
With luck the wide variety of governments at the meetings next month will see the value of compromise and the Internet be given a shot in the arm rather than a kick in the teeth.
Our ideal scenario would be for ITU to be given a veto role in the production of new protocols and standards; ICANN forced to become more accountable and transparent and offer to have its bylaws rewritten by an international committee; and the developing countries’ consent bought by Western governments offering billions in funds to build up their infrastructure. But then that’s the old Internet ideology slipping out again.