Governing the Net: the long and winding road
Co-authored with David Lang
The American move to fully empower ICANN has been heralded as a game-changing development. The ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore last week launched efforts to facilitate the transition, and in the coming months, the mechanisms of this will take form through consultations at various international meetings including NETmundial in April, ICANN 50 in June, and the Internet Governance Forum in September. While the September 2015 transition deadline has ratcheted up excitement and reinvigorated dialogue on the future of the Internet, it’s first important to understand where the cards lay before the US announcement on 14 March. This week, Governing the Net takes a step back to survey the landscape that was, and flag the key milestones on the road ahead.
Last week, we explored the wily American manoeuvres that simultaneously solidified the Administration’s support for the multi-stakeholder governance model and deeply rocked the Internet governance debate. But what is the multi-stakeholder governance model? The model advocated by the US is firmly rooted in the historical design of Internet management. The 1998 Proposal to Improve the Technical Management of Internet Names and Addresses green paper set forth four principles: stability; competition; private, bottom-up coordination; and representation. These principles remain at the heart of a multi-stakeholder model that privileges consensus decision making, where governments work as equal partners alongside players from industry, business, civil society, NGOs and academia.
The counterpoint to this model is a state-centric conception of Internet governance. Generally speaking, states in this camp advocate for a sovereignty-based governance where states are the primary actors exerting command and control over Internet content and capabilities. China and Russia have been at the vanguard, spearheading several efforts to empower the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) or form a new intergovernmental UN body to govern the Internet. Proponents of that state-centric approach claim ‘information security’ is at the core of national security and have gone so far as to say that the internet is a form of cultural imperialism wielded by the US which impinges on their state sovereignty. For a more in-depth take on the Russian and Chinese perspectives check out ICPC’s Compelled to Control Special Report.
The struggle to shape Internet governance has been underway since the information superhighway first broke into the private sector and began to be recognised as both a transnational opportunity and threat. On 12 September 2011, China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan tabled a proposal for an international code of conduct for information security at the UN General Assembly. It sought to affirm ‘that policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of states’ and promoted the establishment of a multilateral ‘Internet management system’. Russia and China followed this effort in 2012, aggressively pushing a proposal at the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) that sought to give the ITU increased purview over the Internet.
Although the 2012 WCIT proposal—also backed by UAE, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan, and Egypt—was later withdrawn, a review of the votes serves as a useful barometer to understand where states then stood on the Internet governance question. Despite firm opposition from the US, which was backed by a solid contingent of European states and traditional allies, the final text earned the support of 89 signatories out of 144 participants. Even before the NSA revelations, the idea of state-based Internet governance had a natural appeal to authoritarian governments and to those looking to solidify political control as suggested by Dave Clemente. It also appeals to a wide array of other states (as James Lewis describes), from those that respect the sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs as the basis of the statist model, to governments reacting to perceived US dominance over the existing system and to those with ‘different cultural background[s] and historical experiences’ to the West.
The rapid expansion of Internet use in the developing world (reducing European and North American statistical dominance over the Internet), the rising regional and global influence of the BRICS, and hobbled economic standing of Western states have all combined to underwrite growing support for the statist model. On top of those larger trends, the NSA revelations have both delegitimised the moral authority wielded by the US stance and increased the appeal of more state control over domestic networks. The revelations shook international confidence in the existing structure of Internet governance, making the status quo increasingly untenable. With proposals from the BRICS, European states, and others hinting towards Internet Balkanisation, and political momentum for significant reform building, 2014 was marked as a critical juncture in Internet governance.
That was, of course, until the US curveball. Although the posting of the full output from ICANN 49 isn’t expected until 7 April, the meeting saw renewed enthusiasm for the multi-stakeholder model (a home crowd advantage to be sure). Despite this, much work is needed this year to secure the future of the Internet. It’s essential that European states be reincorporated as enthusiastic, rather than reluctant partners, so as to constitute a strong community of like-minded states from which true cyber governance and norms can blossom. For the moment it seems that the worrying trajectory towards multilateral governance and Internet Balkanisation has been, at the very least, slowed. The long path ahead for both the transition of US responsibilities and the greater challenge of developing cyber ‘rules of the road’ remains fraught with challenges. 2014 may yet be a pivotal year, but a far more positive one for proponents of the multi-stakeholder model than initially envisioned.