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Internet governance: four ideas, no consensus

An independent Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) last week put forward four options for the internet's future management for consideration at a forthcoming international summit, without committing to a single, preferred solution.20 Jul 2005

At present, internet governance is largely in the hands of US-based ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN has responsibility for Internet Protocol (IP) address space allocation, protocol identifier assignment, generic (gTLD) and country code (ccTLD) Top-Level Domain name system management, and root server system management functions.

It is a non-profit corporation that derives its authority from a 1998 agreement with the US Government.

But some developing countries argue that control of the internet should be in the hands of an international body such as the UN, while many developed countries disagree, looking to increase the role of national governments in the regulation of the internet.

The complex issue is due to be discussed at the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which will take place in Tunisia in November.

The first summit took place in Geneva in December 2003, and resulted in a Declaration of Principles for governing the information society and an Action Plan for implementing them. But agreement was only reached by leaving the toughest issues for future discussion.

One of these – the question of who should govern the internet – was given to the 40 members of the WGIG for consideration, and last week the working group published its report.

In general terms, the WGIG report seeks to improve current internet governance arrangements and to set priorities for future action.

It proposes a further internationalisation of internet governance arrangements, based on the WSIS Declaration of Principles, which advocates multilateralism and the involvement of all stakeholders and international organisations. It also identifies a wide range of governance functions but excludes government involvement in day-to-day operational management of the internet.

Based on an assessment of what works well and what works less well, the report identifies a vacuum within the context of existing structures and notes that there is no global multi-stakeholder forum to address internet related public policy issues. It therefore proposes the creation of a global forum for dialogue among all stakeholders such as governments, the private sector and civil society, to address problems linked to internet governance, including spam and cybercrime.

Since it was unable to agree on a single model, the Working Group sets out four possible models for the conduct of global public policy and oversight of the internet, stressing that “No single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international internet governance.”

  • One model sees no need for a specific oversight organisation, but envisages the possibility of enhancing the role of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC).
  • Another model suggests setting up a new body that would address public policy issues in relation to ICANN competencies and maybe also issues that do not fall within the scope of other existing institutions. In this model, the GAC might be made redundant.
  • A third model envisages the creation of a new body that would replace the GAC and have wide-ranging policy competencies. ICANN would be accountable to this new body, which would also facilitate negotiation of internet-related treaties, conventions and agreements. It would be linked to the United Nations.
  • A fourth model proposes new structures for three interrelated areas of internet policy governance, oversight and global coordination. It suggests the creation of three new bodies for each of these functions and would include a reformed internationalised ICANN linked to the United Nations.

The report, which has a strong focus on development, advocates a meaningful participation of developing countries in internet governance and recommends ways to reinforce their capacities to deal with these issues.

The report also recommends further improving coordination among the various international organisations and institutions dealing with internet governance issues. Furthermore, the report notes that international coordination needs to build on policy coherence at national and regional level and recommends that the multi-stakeholder approach be implemented at all levels.

Finally, the document makes recommendations in a number of policy areas: administration of the root zone files and system; allocation of domain names; IP addressing; interconnection costs; internet stability, security and cybercrime; spam; data protection and privacy rights; consumer rights; intellectual property rights; meaningful participation in global policy development; capacity building; freedom of expression; and multilingualism.