The Internet meets the UN: Round 1
Date: Sunday March 28 2004, @01:51PM
Topic: WSIS

In a (possibly temporary) victory for ICANN, the US Government, the International Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Society, the UN-sponsored "Global Forum" on Internet Governance in New York concluded that the "current system of Internet governance seemed to be working well." The only major questions, according to the official news release of the Global Forum, was "how to better coordinate the work of specialized bodies and ensure the involvement of all stakeholders."

It's not clear where this conclusion came from, because there was no systematic assessment of the performance of ICANN, its related organizations, or any other treaties and activities affecting the Internet. But the UN Global Forum was basically a testing of the political winds, not a scientific assessment. And the politics were highly complex and difficult to assess.

ICANN put its best foot forward, relying on the omnipresence of its Board Chair, technologist Vinton Cerf, and relegating ICANN CEO Paul Twomey to a less visible role. Cerf held forth for two hours after the opening reception in a slide show that might have been titled, "everything you wanted to know about the Internet protocols....and much, much more." He was given a prime speaking slot on the opening plenary session, and was a frequent commentor in the breakout group he attended.

Compared to the engaging and technically knowledgable Dr. Cerf, most representatives of UN agencies came off as bureaucratic stiffs; however, the higher-level representatives spoke in diplomatic code of "consultations," the "formation of a secretariat" and "negotiating groups" in ways that were probably as precise to UN insiders as it was opaque and bland to the uninitiated.

The message the code conveyed, however, was not all that bad for ICANN. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (the only UN representative who can hold a candle to Cerf in eloquence and presence) said that in managing the Internet, the UN "need[s] to be as creative as those who invented the Internet." There is a need for governance, Annan asserted, but governance "does not have to be done in the traditional way."

Annan indicated that the actual UN Working Group on Internet governance mandated by the WSIS Declaration will be established after further "consultations." This means private, behind the scenes meetings among governments, ICANN, and other relevant organizations and major interest groups. Still, no one knows what the structure or processes of the WG will be. In the meantime, the Secretary-General will establish a Secretariat to support the Working Group soon. Technology Daily reports that Markus Kummer of Switzerland has been appointed as the head of the Secretariat, and will be based in Geneva while reporting to UN HQ in New York. The UN ICT Task Force, which hosted the Global Forum, was positioning itself to be that secretariat. At the Global Forum Kummer stated that the "Institutional independence of the WG is paramount, it cannot be affiliated with any specific group." This code indicates that the ITU, for example. would not be considered as the host of the WG. Kummer also stressed the need to make the Working Group "open and inclusive" (but we heard a lot of that rhetoric when ICANN was formed, didn't we?).

One interesting question this reporter was unable to answer was, what happened to the coalition of developing countries that was able to torpedo the Cancun WTO meeting and force the creation of the WSIS Working Group on Internet governance? Only Brazil and South Africa were there and visible. Although South Africa's representative did actively assail the "legitimacy" of ICANN, it openly refrained from asserting that anything about its institutional structure or policies were "broken." China in particular seemed conspicuous by its absence, and none of the Arab states made their presence felt.

Observations about civil society participation, the sponsoring organization and methods of the meeting will be made in a future ICANNWatch article.

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