Can the Internet be governed?

Summary:"A lot of developing country governments don’t know much about the Internet. We see the government of India picking up one of our papers, then saying ‘We’ve got to preserve the end to end principle.’ which means they’re reading it."

The Internet remains the world’s biggest open source application. The protocols are open, free, and available to all.

The Internet is governed based on the end-to-end principle, which is in big trouble these days. Countries like China routinely violate it. So do companies like Verizon.

Without effective governance the Internet could easily balkanize, splitting up into separate root DNS systems maintained by carriers or countries. So in December 2003 a group of American and Swiss academics launched the Internet Governance Project, to offer unbiased intelligence on the issues to the world’s governments and civil society organizations (like the CDT ). One of their periodic reports, on how ICANN might be reformed came out in April.

Milton Mueller
I talked to one of the authors, Milton Mueller of Syracuse University (right), shortly after ZDNet published a piece by Tucows CEO Eliot Noss warning of a UN-ITU conspiracy to strip ICANN of its power and impose multi-government censorship and taxation.

"Eliot fears the sky is falling," Mueller said. "What we’ve discovered is, by forcing the US government and ICANN to come to terms with the rest of the world about how the Internet is governed, we’ve opened up avenues of reform."

Mueller’s paper, co-written with Hans Klein of Georgia Tech, offered three paths to reform – top-down, bottom-up, and lateral. Getting other governments involved would mitigate American power, he said, while bottom-up reforms could give users input they were promised, but never given by ICANN. Lateral reform, through the ITU, would force ICANN to compete for users’ allegiance.

Mueller is still chair of the "non-commercial users constituency" within ICANN – universities and public interest groups. "The WSIS process" so criticized by Noss "could be a way of getting governments to agree governments should not be in control."

Right now, in fact, governments are in control. Specifically one government. Specifically the U.S. government. "Whenever valuable resources are to be distributed, it’s given to the U.S. economy," he said, citing the failed re-assignment of .net registration away from Verisign.

American interests concerning the Internet are dominated by concerns over homeland security, law enforcement, and intellectual property. Not that there is anything wrong with any of this, but these are not the world’s obsessions, and other views need to be heard, he said.

"The system is biased to the U.S., and the rest of the world sees that, and it’s naïve of Eliot to write this sort of ‘China and Syria and Cuba are on the working group.’ If you’re going to have international discussions you have to deal with those countries. And they’re on the government advisory committee of ICANN too."

So what happens now? Continuing education, said Mueller.

"A lot of developing country governments don’t know much about the Internet. We see the government of India picking up one of our papers, then saying ‘We’ve got to preserve the end to end principle’ which means they’re reading it."

ICANN defenders no longer claim that ICANN doesn’t do Internet policy, he concludes, thanks in part to his group. Which means now the discussion of Internet governance can finally begin.

Topics: Government

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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