The endgame in the long-running battle over who is to control the internet may be upon us, with the appointment of a little-reported but highly significant new UN committee to look into initiatives for policing the internet.
This follows the decision at the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) 2010-2011 Inter-sessional Panel, reported in RawStory last week for a recently-formed United Nations task force to look at the possibility of creating a new inter-governmental working group to help further international cooperation on policies to police the internet.
At stake was the future of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a UN-sponsored body that puts forward recommendations on how governments should respond to internet developments. With the IGF mandate about to expire, the question to be answered was whether to allow the IGF quietly to pass away or to breathe new life into it, extending its mandate both in scope and term.
The CSTD Bureau decided that there was life in the Forum yet - or at least there should be - and put forward proposals for a re-energised IGF that sent shivers of apprehension down the collective spine of those committed to the internet as a highway to free expression and democratic debate.
They proposed that the task force be limited in future to governments, with no representation by civil or industry groups. Unsurprisingly, delegates at Tuesday’s task force meeting from countries such as China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Serbia and Saudi Arabia indicated that they were favourable to the government-only plan.
Some of those present, including Portugal and Brazil, focussed on the positive aspects of this decision, particularly in respect of how it might help to further proliferate broadband services in poorer nations. Brazil went out of its way to insist that this move should not be seen as a "takeover" of the internet.
However, critics have been swift to condemn this move. Writing on Google’s official blog on Friday, Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf stated: "The beauty of the Internet is that it’s not controlled by any one group. Its governance is bottoms-up [sic] — with academics, non-profits, companies and governments all working to improve this technological wonder of the modern world.
"This model has not only made the Internet very open - a testbed for innovation by anyone, anywhere - it's also prevented vested interests from taking control.
"The current bottoms-up, open approach works — protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation. Let’s fight to keep it that way."
This decision has also excited condemnation from a powerful alliance of internet interests, including ICANN, Nominet, the Internet Governance Caucus and the International Chamber of Commerce who joined together with other concerned organisations to express their concerns (pdf), and to launch a petition. They write: "We are surprised and deeply concerned about the decision taken by an extraordinary meeting of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) Bureau on Monday.
"The format decided by the Bureau of the CSTD is contrary to both the report and the spirit of the ECOSOC resolution [(2010/2) of the United Nations Economic and Social Council] and is therefore disappointing.
"In any event, it is not up to the Bureau of the CSTD to make a decision on this matter.
"This is not a Working Group of the CSTD, but rather a Working Group to be convened by the Chair of the CSTD as instructed by the ECOSOC resolution.
"The CSTD Chair entrusted you with the mission of implementing the request made to her. In light of that and the above information we urge you to retract the decision of 7 December, and to establish an appropriately constituted Working Group consistent with the WSIS formulation ensuring 'the full and active participation of governments, the private sector and civil society from both developing and developed countries, involving relevant intergovernmental and international organizations and forums'."