Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Global Battle to Rule the Internet (October 03 2010)

Updated on December 02 2010

Governments, industry and rights campaigners are engaged in a global battle to shape the Internet as formal and informal policies emerge to assert control over an increasingly powerful media.


* October 01 2006: The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) operates under the terms of new agreement with US government.

* November 2006: Internet Governance Forum meets for first time in Athens, Greece.

* June 18 2009: European Commission adopts Communication on Internet governance.

* October 02 2009: US relinquishes unilateral control of ICANN.

* September 2010: Council of Europe proposes 'international legal standard' at Internet Governance Forum, with a view to drawing up a treaty.

Policy Summary

The debate around who governs the Internet is gathering momentum, as a plethora of stakeholders are getting involved to prevent the dominance of one or more political or industrial force over the web.

At the heart of the battle is a concept known as 'net neutrality'.

Net neutrality has only recently become a choice phrase in EU policy but Internet governance hit the EU radar in 2005 when the UN began to address the issue.

The United Nations' Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) defines Internet governance as "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".

WGIG defined four key areas concerning Internet governance:

1. Infrastructure - meaning the domain name system and IP addresses;

2. Internet issues such as spam, security and cybercrime;

3. Intellectual property and international trade and;

4. Expansion, particularly in developing countries.

The race to rule the Internet began with the establishment of a non-governmental body to take over tasks previously carried out by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) on behalf of the US government, like assigning Internet domain names.

A new body, called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in California, took over responsibility for managing the assignment of domain names and IP addresses.

ICANN's monopoly of Internet governance was challenged by a number of governments worldwide, including Brazil, China, South Africa, the European Commission and the UK Presidency of the EU.

As a result, the US agreed to establish an Internet Governance Forum, which was convened by the United Nations Secretary General before the end of the second quarter of 2006.

European industry bodies responsible for EU country-code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) coordinate their activities through CENTR (Council for European National Top Level Domain Registries). The management of the allocation of IP addresses in Europe is carried out by RIPE NCC (Reseaux IP Europeens Network Coordination Centre).


The evolution of Internet governance has mainly been happening behind closed doors, during meetings of bodies that are sometimes held in far-flung places.

These stakeholders, who usually meet under the banner of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), come from varied academic, corporate and governmental backgrounds.

In November 2005, an agreement was struck between the EU and the US to leave the supervision of domain names and other technical resources unchanged - that is, in the hands of the US.

Internet think-ins

In order to smooth over previous rows about US dominance of the Internet, a new purely consultative international forum was established, the purpose of which was to strengthen governments' standing on Internet policy issues, including the address system.

A UN body, called the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), met for the first time in Athens on October 30 2006. It is convened by the United Nations secretary-general and has no power beyond the ability to bring together all the stakeholders on the Internet.

On September 29 2006, one day before the expiry of a memorandum of understanding that tied ICANN to the US Department of Commerce, both parties signed a new agreement which leaves more freedom to ICANN:

* First, ICANN will no longer have its work prescribed for it. How it works and what it works on is up to ICANN and its community to devise.

* Second, ICANN is no longer required to report every six months to the US Department of Commerce. It will now provide an annual report that will be targeted at the whole Internet community.

The last meeting of the IGF took place in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2010 while ICANN met in Norway in September 2010.

ICANN holds periodic public meetings rotated between continents for the purpose of encouraging global participation in its processes.

Critics argue that these public meetings are often held in countries with lower Internet usage and far away from locations that the majority of the Internet-using public cannot afford to reach.

The body has also been criticised for being secretive and not providing the wider Internet community with information on its decision-making.

US dominance?

Since ICANN was established in 1998, the United States has been the sole supervisor of the organisation's policy decisions, such as dispute resolution over domain name ownership or the introduction of top-level domains.

On October 2 2009, the United States announced it will give up its unilateral supervision powers over ICANN, the body responsible for managing Internet addresses worldwide. The move was warmly welcomed by the EU and web advocacy groups.

In practical terms, this means that "the political responsibility of the Internet moves from the US to the global community", ICANN's Massimiliano Minisci said.

The so-called ICANN community includes governments, companies, civil society and technical experts from all over the world.

EU joins debate

In a May 2009 speech, Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding urged the Obama administration to embark on ambitious reform of Internet governance (EurActiv 06/05/09).

Reding proposed the establishment of a G12 to govern the Internet, to replace the current US-driven system.

Reding's successor, Neelie Kroes, has not made such concrete declarations, but she appears to be towing the same line.

The commissioner's flagship Digital Agenda aims to support the continuation of the Internet Governance Forum beyond 2010 and to work with third countries on digital goods, services and intellectual property rights.

More importantly, the EU will likely "seek a mandate to update international agreements in line with technological progress or, where appropriate, propose new instruments", according to a European Commission source.

The Commission agrees that Internet governance should continue to be led by the private sector but wants to see it extended to developing and emerging markets, Kroes said in a recent speech.

"I believe that it is of utmost importance that citizens now have the option to use scripts of their language for their domain names, email addresses and so on, just like in their everyday life", Kroes affirmed.

Though users will inevitably turn to their governments if there is any major disruption to their Internet service, she warned against giving governments a stronger role in its day-to-day operation.

"This private-sector leadership continues to deliver important public policy objectives and needs to be maintained and supported", the commissioner said.

Kroes' calls for a more multilateral approach to Internet governance came at the annual 2010 IGF meeting, where 115 countries were represented.

An Internet treaty?

The Council of Europe's expert group on critical Internet resources and cross-border traffic presented its proposal for 'twelve principles of Internet governance' at the 2010 summit of the Internet Governance Forum in Lithuania. The draft treaty to enshrine the principles of net neutrality and protect the Internet from political interference was discussed but not adopted by the Internet Governance Forum.

In basic terms, net neutrality means that the commercial interests of telecommunications companies and Internet service providers should not affect consumers' access to the Web. For example, any action taken for competitive gain, like blocking access to Skype for selling another Internet telephony service, runs counter to the principles of net neutrality.

The draft Internet treaty has been likened to the Space Treaty, signed in 1967, which said that space exploration should be carried out for the benefit of all nations and guarantee "free access to all areas of celestial bodies".

"The fundamental functions and the core principles of the Internet must be preserved in all layers of the Internet architecture with a view to guaranteeing the interoperability of networks in terms of infrastructures, services and contents", reads the proposal.

The proposal was drawn up by the Council of Europe, an organisation based in Strasbourg which has 47 member states and aims to promote human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Europe.

In April 2010, Digital Agenda Commissioner Kroes said that whatever business model Internet service providers (ISPs) choose, it must not interfere with customers' access to Internet services of any kind.

Control of the Internet

Many governments are trying to exert more control over the Internet but most of these are not in the EU. China's firewall is one well-documented example.

However, that could change, argue politicians, who fear a draft EU law to tackle child pornography would allow EU authorities to filter the Internet for politically unwanted material.

The European Commission wants member states to filter out child porn from the Internet and impose harsher sentences on human trafficking, but the European Parliament has cast doubt as to whether new EU laws would be tough enough.

German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht warned that the German government would in fact try to block any attempt by the EU to filter out illegal content online. Albrecht alleges that the blocking of porn websites would lead authorities to block other unwanted content, such as politically critical websites.

In addition, secretive negotiations to tackle counterfeiting and online piracy are fueling fears that governments are looking for ways to assert control over the Internet. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which was signed off by global negotiating partners in October 2010, is still subject to approval from the European Parliament.

MEPs' disapproval would send negotiators back to the drawing board. ACTA has been mired in controversy from the outset as lobbyists worry that the agreement would force Internet service providers to police the web. Activists argue that ACTA could infringe fundamental rights, as ISPs and regional Internet authorities could bypass the legal system to cut consumers off from the Internet if they are caught pirating content.


"Internet governance is [...] equally relevant to all public authorities around the globe and not just the prerogative of [...] developed countries. For this reason, five years after committing to the Tunis Agenda, we need more concrete progress towards enhanced cooperation - we must go beyond just another round of consultations on the subject. Public authorities across the world must now be able, on an equal footing, to effectively carry out their roles and responsibilities when international public policy issues are at stake", said EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes.

"If governance were to become the exclusive province of nation states or captured by any other interests, we would lose the foundation of the Internet's long-term potential and transformative value. Decisions on its future should reflect the widest possible range of views and the wisdom of the entire world community - not just governmental organisations, said Rod Beckstrom, president and CEO of ICANN.

"We are living in a global village and we can only address it by looking at what Internet governance is all about within the structures of the Internet", said the president of the Information Technology Association of Gambia, Poncelet Ileleji.

"I think that democratising the whole access of anything [on the Internet] to citizens is the fundamental premise on all of this [internet governance] and that's what we need to ensure that [...] digital inclusion happens", said Subramaniam Ramadorai, vice-chairman of Tata Consultancy Services.

"Reding's paper, we learned, was her own personal initiative, not an official or vetted product of the EC. Members of the HLIGG [the EU High-Level Internet Governance Group] were as surprised by it as the rest of us and did not want discussion of it to dominate the hearing", Martin Mueller from the Internet Governance Project said of the former commissioner's effort to redraw Internet governance in 2009.

"The only conclusion one can draw is that thinking on that vital topic has not matured yet. Aside from vague appeals to 'multi-stakeholderism' and some legitimate but increasingly repetitive warnings about how clumsy state intervention could mess things up, the riddle of how to combine the flexibility and expertise of private sector-based governance with input from governments and (more importantly) the legal protections of basic rights and due process protections remains unsolved", Mueller added after a meeting with Reding last year.

"The controversy over who controls the Internet has simmered in arcane technology-policy circles for years and has only in recent years moved into formal diplomatic talks. Many governments feel that, like the phone network, the Internet should be administered under a multilateral agreement rather than being dominated by the United States without a legal basis", said Milon Gupta, from the European Institute for Research and Strategic Studies in Telecommunications.

"Formally, there is no direct control of the US government over the Internet. However, through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the US Departments of Commerce and of State are exerting a strong influence on the administration of the root zone file, the core element of the Internet", Gupta continued.

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Bill Totten


  • This is not good when governments feel exposed. They look for an excuse to clamp down on something and that something is the internet.

    By Anonymous King Kong, at 7:09 AM, November 13, 2011  

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