Day one of the African school on internet governance

Thirty-five people from all over Africa are gathered in Durban for three days to study internet governance and why they need to be involved in it. Sometimes interrupted by the sound of loud hadedah ibises, students participated actively in discussions that covered basic aspects of internet governance without shunning the complexities at stake (such as why wording choices in international agreements might have long lasting consequences intergovernmental agreement).

One of the first sessions focused on the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, one of the most influential outcomes of the UN-sponsored World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS). Some of the school faculty were present in Tunis in 2005 when governments reached this agreement by consensus, literally behind the door. But despite civil society representatives not being allowed in the room when governments were drafting and negotiating the final document, it was during WSIS that different stakeholders (grouped as governments, the private sector and civil society) were officially recognised as such and given the opportunity to influence an intergovernmental process. Some doors were closed, it’s true, but others were opened for the first time in the UN history.

Towela Jere, from NEPAD, guided participants through relevant paragraphs of the document, which among many other things provides a working definition of internet governance (“the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.” As she explained, the document leaves many unanswered questions: Who exactly fall under the umbrella of “civil society”? What are the “respective roles” that the working definition mentions? How do the different principles become “shared”?

Anriette Esterhuysen, from APC, pointed out that even if the Tunis Agenda is not perfect and has some problematic issues (it is, after all, the product of negotiations and compromises by governments), its values and principles have been used since then to advocate for a more development-oriented internet.

The second half of the day was devoted to internet numbers. Why numbers? Adiel Akplogan, CEO of AfriNIC (the African internet registry), explained it quite clearly: even if we see the internet through names, it runs entirely on numbers: internet protocol addresses (IPs) that allow computers to communicate with each other through the networks that make up the internet (such as IP addresses are a scarce resource, and they are allocated through a top-down approach: aglobal body (ICANN) assigns them to the five regional institutions (called regional internet registries), which in turn distribute them among local internet registries (ISPs, universities, big companies). As co-presenter Timothy McGinnis emphasised, however, the policies that govern these mechanisms, however, are bottom-up: they come from the regional communities (which are open to anyone interested in participating), and they might be seen as a commendable model for internet governance.

Then the discussion turned to the transition from IPv4 to IPv6, a new method for generating IP addresses developed to avoid “running out” of numbers that currently constitute the majority of the internet traffic (currently less than 1% of internet traffic uses IPv6). AfriNIC is encouraging local internet registries to start allocating IPv6 addresses, since failing to do so would prevent users from accessing networks which just use the latest version of the internet, which is already happening in China . Additionally, the availability of IPv6 addresses will help to make the “internet of things” happen: a car, a fridge and every sort of appliance will be connected to each other and to their main user. Does this have privacy implications? Would it increase the possibility of surveillance? Probably, and that’s why it’s so important to have spaces to discuss issues like these.

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