PublishedAugust 14, 2013

Why the Internet Governance debate is repetitive and what the UN could do about it

The past 10 years of the international Internet governance debate must have reminded some observers of the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” – the same protagonists making the same arguments in a seemingly perpetual cycle.

On one side of the debate is a group of Western Governments and a large part of the international business and public interest community. This group is generally happy with the status quo, that is to say with an inclusive, bottom-up governance model in which the Internet’s infrastructure is managed by a closely coordinated group of private organisations. On the other side is a group of countries that would like to give more control over the Internet to intergovernmental institutions like the ITU, be it for political, economic or cultural reasons. It includes developing countries that are more comfortable with traditional policy institutions or hope to gain better access to infrastructure funding through a more Government-centric model, or both. It also includes a number of authoritarian regimes wanting to wield more power over online content out of political, religious or moral considerations (e.g. lèse-majesté laws).

The incompatibility of these two worldviews, let’s call them bottom-up vs. top-down for the sake of simplicity, explains why neither side is willing to compromise. As a result, the Internet governance discussions keep repeating themselves.

What makes things more complicated is that both camps can find validity to their claims in the international source documents – a situation reminiscent of the tug of war over constitutional amendments in the United States. To understand this, let’s briefly look at the institutional setting of the debate.

The Internet governance discussions are covered under the so-called World Summit on the Information Society or “WSIS” framework, which refers to a pair of United Nations-sponsored conferences in 2003 and 2005 on the role of information, communication, and technology in modern societies.

Whereas the participating countries agreed on a number of development-related objectives such as e.g. bringing 50 percent of the world’s population online by 2015, it proved considerably more difficult to find common language with regards to the management of global Internet resources, given the widely divergent views held on the issue. As a result, the WSIS process led to some deliberately ambiguous concepts, which allowed both sides to claim victory. Of course, this further fuelled the circular nature of the discussion. For example, the outcome documents called for ‘enhanced cooperation’, a carefully crafted concept that means different things to different people. Many share CCIA’s understanding, namely that ‘enhanced cooperation’ refers to a distributed policy process in line with the distributed nature of the underlying technology. However, some Governments use the term to defend the opposite approach and call for a central mechanism to deal with Internet matters.

The controversy is unlikely to go away anytime soon. More concerning, however, is that the recent NSA surveillance scandal has shifted the balance towards those in favour of a more Government-centric approach. The spying revelations affected the international debate on three levels. First, it undermined the credibility of those who were traditionally the strongest supporters of the multi-stakeholder model. This is particularly true for the US, home to some of the key organisations managing critical Internet resources, e.g. ICANN, and also where most of the leading global Internet services are headquartered. Second, and a result of the first point, it strengthened the position of the countries on the other end of the political spectrum, as it seemed to validate some of their long-standing concerns. And lastly, it alienated some of the middle-ground countries like Brazil, which may now be hard-pressed to revisit their positions.

While it was already becoming more difficult for the US and its allies to sustain their positions in recent years, the latest developments will add additional pressure to the debate. A first test for this ailing coalition will be the next session of the UN General Assembly starting in September where the issue is expected to lead to considerable controversy.

The situation calls for proactive action from those seeking to protect an open and inclusive Internet. First, we need to enable a more constructive dialogue at the international level. Its current setting discourages productive outcomes as the development-related issues are linked to the controversial governance issue. That’s why the two areas need to be separated into different tracks. By making the discussion more about development it will attract middle ground countries away from the fruitless Internet governance debates which are really a proxy for a values disagreement about the role of the state.

The fact that the WSIS Review in 2015 coincides with the review of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) offers a unique opportunity to make the next ten years of WSIS more about development. The MDGs were established following the Millenium Summit of the UN in 2000 and consist of eight fundamental objectives to improve the human condition, e.g. eradicating extreme poverty and providing universal primary education. While some development experts criticise the MDGs for being superficial and schematic, most would agree that they provide a useful frame of reference for the international community and serve to mobilise resources. Aligning WSIS Follow-up with the overall Post-2015 development agenda will ensure that technology will not be discussed in isolation but in the context of a greater purpose – the improvement of people’s lives. This would also be in the spirit of the original UN General Assembly resolution that endorsed WSIS as part of a broader agenda to encourage the achievement of the MDGs.

CCIA has recently produced a document to specify how the WSIS process could be aligned to the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The document responds to a request for strategic advice by a group of Internet-friendly UN delegates and is currently under review by those Governments.


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