ICANN's exiting CEO has stunned internet governance experts by fronting a new Chinese government initiative to expand its view of how the internet should be run.
On the last day of the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, the conference organizers unexpectedly announced they had set up a new "high-level advisory committee" that would guide the agenda of future conferences and "contribute ideas for the development of the Internet."
The committee has already had its first meeting, the organizers stated, naming ICANN's Fadi Chehade and Alibaba CEO Jack Ma as its founders and noting that it had "invited 31 leading Internet figures from governments, enterprises, academic institutions, and technological communities to be members of the first high-level advisory committee."
Those "figures" have not been named but we understand they include government representatives from a number of authoritarian governments, including Russia, and do not include lead names from the internet community.
Since 2012 Chehade has been CEO of ICANN, a Californian non-profit that oversees the internet's domain name system and next year will take over control of the critical IANA functions from the US government. In May, he announced his intention to leave the organization in March 2016 but has yet to find a full-time job.
Although deeply flawed, ICANN represents the international community's best efforts to design the internet's future evolution through a "multi-stakeholder" model that allows everyone an equal seat at the table.
In general, ICANN takes a very dim view of efforts to limit or censor the internet, so Chehade's decision to align himself with the Chinese government, which runs the world's the most sophisticated censorship program, has come as a surprise and disappointment to many.
What's more, the "Wuzhen Initiative" almost exactly mirrors a previous Chehade effort – the "NetMundial Initiative" – which was met with widespread criticism and has effectively died from a lack of support due to his efforts to control it.
In November last year, Chehade announced the creation of the NetMundial Initiative alongside the World Economic Forum and the Brazilian government. It became the focus of immediate criticism.
The three organizers announced they had awarded themselves "permanent seats" on the "coordination council," and allocated a further two permanent seats to the internet community and the UN-led Internet Governance Forum. There would be another 20 members split up by geographic region and sector, they announced, which the three organizers would select from applicants.
The outcry was immediate and within days, the Internet Society (ISOC), Internet Architecture Board (IAB), International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), and parts of civil society all publicly rejected the initiative.
Despite those overtures being rejected, the organizers soldiered on, with Chehade at the head, opening up applications for the council and counting on individual's egos, since no organizations would agree to put their names to it.
The two other "permanent seats" stayed empty after the internet community refused to take them.
In addition, in what now looks like foreshadowing, when there were literally no applicants to fill the Asian business seat on the council, Chehade asked and then simply installed Jack Ma, who he had recently met while on business in Beijing.
The NetMundial Initiative's inaugural meeting was postponed twice and while its council members continued to work on its founding documents, the initiative was met with resounding apathy from the broader internet community. Just 30 people responded to a global call for feedback, and a third of those were openly critical.
Soon after Chehade announced his intention to leave ICANN, he publicly acknowledged that the NetMundial Initiative was unlikely to continue once he was not in a position to fund it with ICANN money and drive it as part of his job.
But then came the Chinese government, the World Internet Conference, and the "Wuzhen Initiative."
The conference is China's transparent effort to shift the internet governance debate away from the currently dominant Western values of openness and freedom, and build a second power base that adopts a more restrictive perspective. The guests of honor at this second conference were the prime ministers of Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The official outline for the Wuzhen Initiative – designed by the High-Level Advisory Committee (HAC) that Chehade now co-chairs – appears harmless enough but contains what internet governance experts will immediately recognize as troubling efforts to legitimize online censorship.
The second point of five guiding principles is "Fostering cultural diversity in the cyberspace." The fourth is "Ensuring peace and security in cyberspace," and the last is "Improving the global Internet governance."
The document notes the "importance of respect for nations' sovereignty in cyberspace" and specifically fails to use the term "multi-stakeholder" in the context of internet governance, instead opting for the loaded term "multilateral," which is code for putting governments in overall control.
Chehade knows only too well what this initiative means and represents. Combined with the closed organizing committee, and the closed "advisory committee," the setup is little more than a Chinese-government-run effort to influence global internet governance.
Regardless, Chehade gave a closing address to the conference, agreed to front the new "high-level advisory committee," and gave an ingratiating interview to the conference's organizers, available online.
Praising "Chinese innovation and Chinese ideas" and lauding "what great things can come out of China," Chehade told the interviewer: "We all need to give a big hug to China. And China typically hugs back."
In this case, China did indeed hug back. ®