WSIS Tunis It’s been four years since the issue of how the internet should be run, and by whom, became an official United Nations topic.
And yet despite hundreds of hours of talks, three preparatory meetings and a world summit, there is only one thing that the world’s governments can agree on: Masood Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador.
If a certain US senator and a certain EU commissioner are to be believed, the internet is five days away from total collapse as governments are finally forced into a corner and told to agree on a framework for future Internet governance.
Both are wrong, but there is a very real risk that an enormous political argument resulting in lifelong ill-will centred around the internet could developed unchecked at the WSIS Summit.
The fact that it hasn’t already is effectively down to one man: Mr Khan. He was chosen as chair of Sub-Committee A during the WSIS process, and his remit includes all the most difficult and contentious elements - not just internet governance but also how the world will deal with issues such as spam and cybercrime.
Even though press attention has focussed on the undecided question of control of the internet, at the start of the process there were widely varying views on just about every aspect of the internet.
And yet through a mixture of careful, respectful and open dialogue, occasional prodding and a dry sense of humour, Masood Khan has turned what could easily have become a bar-room brawl into a gradual formation of agreement.
Such is the level of respect and trust he has built up with all parties that at the first restart of the sub-committee this Sunday, every speaker without exception (and that includes countries as diverse as China, Iran, Brazil, Ghana, Argentina, the US and UK) went out of their way to stress how useful Mr Khan’s contribution as chairman was.
In an extraordinary statement, the UK/EU then deferred its entire contribution to the net governance debate to Mr Khan's stewardship. "We will co-operate in any way you choose," the representative told Mr Khan. This was the same UK/EU team that stunned the self-same room in September by producing a radical blueprint for a new form of internet control.
It may seem incredible that something of such importance rest on the careful judgements made by one man, but as it became clear that different governments were going to be unable to find a solution among themselves, each in turn has ceded more control to Mr Khan.
Having chaired dozens of meetings as a careful and unthreatening facilitator, Mr Khan saw his chance and went for it.
"I would encourage you all not to focus on general themes of internet governance but instead go to the heart of the matter,” were his opening words. And then he listed them. “The question of a future mechanism, the question of oversight, and the paradigm of co-operation amongst all stakeholders."
But government representatives only really feel comfortable when talking in gross generalisations or disagreeing with other delegations. Mr Khan summarised the positions and threw them back at delegates. "We have been discussing this issue for four years and people will want some sort of result. We won’t have any voting here, we will work by consensus. If there is a split, it will not make the final agreement. Where there is no agreement, the effort will have to be to convince each other."
He criticised those reiterating the same points and the same broad principles, outlined the problems, pushed what he saw as the emerging trends and opened it out to the floor. It’s a measure of his standing that the room did not collapse under the eternal nay-saying that has come to represent Net governance discussions.
When the countries failed to heed his instructions, he then told all the main arguing delegates to sit in a room that afternoon and come up with a list of points where they agreed. Four hours later they came back to the official meetings with nothing. Khan suspended the meeting and told them to go back and do it again.
Sitting in a boiling hot and cramped drafting room, the early discussions suffered from the self-same problem of woolly jargon. But when they finished at 10pm, three of ten points had finally hit upon the hundred-pound gorillas in the room that everyone was ignoring.
This morning, with the list in front of delegates, Mr Khan again pushed the agenda. The way such meetings work is that each delegation raises their token, is added to the list of speakers and in turn called upon to speak. It is a non-combative approach proven to help governments gradually reach consensus but it is painfully slow. Mr Khan upped the pace. In response to one delegation’s comments, he ignored the pretence where the country being referred to is not named, and asked that country outright to respond.
And he did it time and time again, until, eventually, the real points at the heart of the internet governance started forming. "Would reform of the GAC [the governmental advisory council, part of ICANN] answer your points?" he asked Brazil. The Brazilian delegation demured. "You did not answer the question," Mr Khan came back.
It wasn’t just the Brazilians. The US wasn’t allowed to hide either. Would the US please say whether the word “oversight” is ever going to be acceptable to them? Could the US answer the assertion that other countries do not have adequate control over their own domain?
It required some very fast and not entirely persuasive thinking on the part of delegates to avoid making mistakes. Twice, governments tried to stall the whole approach by asking what official standing the document they were creating would have - an age-old diplomatic trick. Mr Khan brushed it aside: "Just wait."
When a letter from ICANN chairman Vint Cerf was mentioned and argued over, Mr Khan found a copy and read the whole thing out . When one delegation suggested a useful compromise or pulled back the diplomatic curtains to produce straightforward language, he signalled his approval. If it got too heated, he made a joke and left the issue alone for the time being.
In such a way, Ambassador Khan has expertly moved a room full of governments that have been unable to get past the same topic for four years onto a path that now even the most pessimistic can see drawing ahead of them.
It is far from over but when the agreed text on how the internet should be run and by whom appears in front of the World Summit and is approved on Friday, it most certainly won’t be perfect but it will be in no short measure thanks to remarkable abilities of the unassuming ambassador from Pakistan.®