The politics in Geneva were driven by an alliance between the European Union, states critical of ICANN such as Brazil, and
authoritarian states such as China, Iran and Pakistan. All want to create an "Inter-Governmental Council for global public policy
and oversight of Internet governance." Unlike ICANN, this Council would exclude civil society and the private sector from participating in policy making. It would set up a top-down,
regulatory relationship between a governmental Council and the people who actually produce and use the Internet. As we have learned from the past two years, most governments have little
interest in solving the real problems of the Internet. They
prefer to play political games: asserting "national sovereignty"
over a global communication medium, censoring inconvenient
sources of information, thinking of ways to protect national
telecom monopolies from internet-driven competition, second-guessing TLD selections, grabbing control of country names in the domain name space, excluding Taiwan, and so on.
The US government and ICANN have resisted inter-governmental
oversight, contending that intergovernmental supervision can be
politically unstable and dangerous to the Internet's autonomy.
But the US still seems not to understand how its own insistence
on unilateral oversight creates the same instability.
When the US criticizes governmental control, the obvious retort
is that there is already one government with extensive oversight
powers over ICANN and the core technical functions of the
Internet: the USA itself. The US is completely at a loss to
explain why it should have that control, to the exclusion of all
other governments. Its "but we are different" argument might find
a receptive audience among US business interests, but it doesn't
fly anywhere else. It's not enough for the US to say, "we are not
an authoritarian state like China." For one thing, the US seems
an increasingly authoritarian state to many in Europe, what with
the Patriot Act and other recent measures forcing everyone
entering the country to undergo biometric surveillance. But even
if that is not an entirely fair perception, the US cannot claim
that it will not use its unilateral power over ICANN * for it
already has. In August, the Bush administration responded to
political pressure from conservative religious groups by asking
ICANN to reconsider the creation of a top level domain for adult
content. It was inevitable and entirely predictable that other
governments, including erstwhile allies such as the European
Union, would want their own piece of that power.
The US could have, and should have, privatized and
internationalized its oversight authority when it had a chance.
It could have, and should have, insisted on robust, democratic
accountability mechanisms for ICANN that would have pre-empted
demands for centralized, old- style inter-governmental
oversight. It could have, and should have, insisted on
negotiating binding international agreements protecting the
Internet from arbitrary governmental interference and regulation.
But it didn't. And now the debate has devolved to a choice
between "US control" versus "UN control." If that is the choice,
it is only a matter of time before collective international
What seems to have been lost in the shuffle is the idea of
distributed, cooperative control that involves individuals,
technical and academic groups, Internet businesses and limited,
lawful interactions with governments. The idea that nation-states
should not have the ability to arbitrarily intervene in the
Internet's operation whenever they feel like it, but should be
bound by clear, negotiated constitutional principles, has been
crowded out of the debate.
As the WSIS debate spills into the US media, do not permit the US
government to wrap itself up in the flag of Internet freedom. It
is reaping what it sowed. Its own special, extra-legal authority
over ICANN and the Internet has been the lightning rod for
politicization. Its insistence on retaining control, and the
spillover from its unilateralism in other areas such as the war
in Iraq, has done tremendous damage to its credibility. Now the
Internet is paying the price.