Who will control the internet?

Heated discussions between governments meeting in Tunis at the World Summit on the Information Society seems to reaching results, which could change the face of how the internet is managed for the next several years. APCNews reports.

Heated discussions between governments meeting in Tunis at the World Summit on the Information Society seems to reaching results, which could change the face of how the internet is managed for the next several years. APCNews reports.

Since the Canadian-chaired working group reported back to the plenary of the Subcommittee A — the one dealing with internet governance — at WSIS, since indicate that a clear agreement is being reached on the need to float a Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

Ambassador Khan, chairman-designate of the subcommittee, drafted a new document on Monday, arguing that the UN Secretary General establish an IGF.

All points relating to oversight were dropped from the new negotiation document, meaning that discussions about the future of ICANN — the US-run organisation that controls the current internet system of website names (domains) and central computers (root servers) — has also been left out for the time being.

Three groups of formations spent Monday afternoon debating the forum issue and the possible dropping of discussions about the internet’s oversight mechanism.

The USA, Australia and Canada proposed that the FIG be convened by the Internet Society – an association that supports the ad-hoc bodies active in the growth of the internet — thereby suggesting that the UN should have absolutely no role and competencies in internet-related matters.

These matters range from broadband internet, to spam control, and intellectual property, trade and e-commerce, cyber-crime, freedom of expression, internet security, developing countries’ participation in internet policy making, the domain name system (DNS) and other such public policy issues.

This position was then referred to a working group, chaired by Singapore, which agreed that the UN Secretary General should establish an Internet Governance Forum based on an inclusive and open process.

Iran, Brazil and the Africans were much more concerned about ICANN, and argued that a transformed or new organisation should adopt oversight functions.

The EU, which had proposed a cooperative model regarding the management of the DNS and the root zone file at PrepCom 3 in Geneva in September 2005, insisted on inserting text to enhance cooperation among governments and all other stakeholders (private sector, civil society, and end users) in the future.

This move is seen as building on existing structures to enable governments, put on an equal footing, to carry out their roles and responsibilities with respect to public policy issues, and not to day-to-day management of the DNS system.

But — and here is the nuance — it proposed that such cooperation should include globally applicable principles on the management and coordination of critical internet resources (names and numbers…ICANN’s present territory). This process should start by the end of the first quarter of 2006, involving all stakeholders.

So the Europeans are proposing a framework agreement.

When the plenary reconvened, the USA placed the reference to the Secretary General, as the initiator of the FIG, into brackets. This was done as a retaliation move to Algeria’s paragraph saying that the FIG should possess an oversight function.

The deadlock sent everybody to their hotels with question marks as to how the negotiations can converge into a common commitment.

This morning, Subcommittee A reconvened, and Chairperson Khan made it clear that nobody wants a failure of the summit regarding internet governance. Khan further asked for a maximal collaboration on behalf of governments in order to reach an agreement.

The chairperson asked the USA to withdraw its brackets with respect to the Secretary General of the UN’s role in setting up the forum. The USA diplomats said they would not do so unless the paragraph calling for an oversight function for the forum was dropped.

Australia then proposed that an additional section be added. They suggested that the Secretary General consult with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the establishment of the forum. This has to be understood as another move to introduce ISOC as a convenor of the forum. This proposition was not retained.

Brazil pointedly suggested that the Secretary General of the UN convenes the first meeting related to the creation of the FIG.

This in turn paved the way for a conditional agreement between various interested governments on this issue, which then again enabled the chair to take out all brackets.

“This is a success,” APC’s Communications and Information Policy Programme Manager Willie Currie said as he left the plenary at mid-day today.

“It means that one of the issues for which we are advocating [the establishment of a multi-stakeholder and multi-lateral IGF] is in the process of coming into being. It is definitely the principal success at this particular moment of the discussions,” he added.

[The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is an international network of civil society organisations dedicated to empowering and supporting groups and individuals working for peace, human rights, development and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), including the internet.]

Even though this account is only a snapshot of the current state of negotiations, meaning that all positions can still be re-shuffled, it is becoming unlikely that the conditional agreement on the IGF be reversed.

“This new development shifts the process into a new space in which the issues can be discussed. Also, it is now admitted that this space will most probably be convened under the UN banner and with a clear multi-stakeholder participation,” Currie outlined. “The hope is to end up with a forum that applies the multi-stakeholder aspect and the Geneva principle of multilateralism, democracy and transparency.”

ITU Secretary-General Utsumi declared in a an official press conference this afternoon, that “80% of the goals of the summit have already been achieved by now […] Now no one country or one group controlling the internet can make arbitrary decisions anymore,” he stressed.

At the time of writing, on Tuesday afternoon, there are still further discussions going on in working groups. At 4 PM local time, all delegates were scheduled to reconvene in the plenary of Subcommittee A. The result expected later today (Tuesday), could become the final chapter on internet governance for the next several years. Stay tuned.