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    Highlights of the ICANNWatch Archive
    (June 1999 - March 2001)

    WSIS The Failure of Internet Unilateralism
    posted by Mueller on Sunday October 02 2005, @11:29AM

    The results of WSIS Prepcom 3 demonstrate the failure of US unilateralism. The US is well on its way toward being isolated, having lost the support of the European Union in its attempt to keep ICANN and Internet governance under its own control. Now its rigid, defensive policy has put the Internet itself at risk.

    An Italian policy analyst with whom I spoke summarized the situation aptly: instead of leading the world to a political solution the US (and its business allies) have holed up in a bunker, refusing to talk about anything serious and hoping the whole thing would blow over. But sooner or later, holes are bound to be blown into their bunker (especially when the US position is logically and politically contradictory, see below), and the anger of those with whom the US refuses to deal is only magnified.

    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 control wins.

    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.

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