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No Agreement on Internet Governance

Gustavo Capdevila
12 Sept 2005 | IPS

GN3 Editorial Comment: We have been regularly commenting on the emergent qualities of global civil society as a third social force alongside States and Markets. Global social phenomena are reinforcing this new map of the social terrain, although existing social structures and processes still have a long way to go. As discussed in the article below, tensions are evident in the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) as it tries to address the information gap and internet governance among others. But it is perhaps more interesting to note the formal participation of government, business and civil society--each bringing a different (though sometimes convergent) point of view to the process.

GENEVA - The script for the final act of the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) will begin to be written on Sep. 19 in this Swiss city, with the participation of a cast that will be made up - for the first time on the international stage - of a wide range of actors: governments, business and civil society.

Stemming from its novel makeup are discrepancies that have stood in the way of the drafting of a text that everyone can agree on, which is to be signed by the heads of state and government at the second phase of the WSIS, to be held Nov. 14-16 in Tunisia.

The WSIS, the first phase of which took place in Geneva in December 2003, revolves around the challenges posed by the information society with respect to the future of the Internet, especially the gap between rich and poor countries in the use of computer and telecommunications technologies.

The business community and some governments, especially the George W. Bush administration in the United States, want to maintain the current Internet governance regime, which so far has been almost exclusively in the hands of the private sector and the U.S. government.

Industry, which controls - and profits from - the current system, wants to leave it as it is, a position shared by the United States, said Brazilian representative Josť Marcos Nogueira Viana.

The great majority of developing countries, on the other hand, are pushing for reforms of Internet governance, as are civil society organisations, although they differ with the proposed models for reform.

The issue of Internet governance will be the focus of the last Preparatory Committee Meeting, scheduled for Sep. 19-30 in Geneva.

Since its creation in the 1960s, the worldwide web has been growing by leaps and bounds, and currently connects some one billion users around the globe.

The question of Internet governance also includes aspects like the mechanisms to be established to follow up on compliance with the resolutions reached in the two phases of the WSIS, in Geneva and Tunis.

The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) set up by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan noted in its final report in July that defining Internet governance "has been the subject of long discussions."

It therefore provided the following definition: "Internet governance is 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."

The report made a significant clarification by limiting the actions of the three sectors - governments, business and civil society - to "their respective roles."

That concept, which is supported by the great majority of governments, would apparently place limits on this first experiment in holding a truly tripartite U.N. conference.

Civil society groups have protested that the specific roles granted to non-governmental organisations and the private sector are ambiguous in relation to the role assigned to governments.

Referring to civil society and business, Viana said the governments were not opposed to "observers," while adding, however, that there are times when it is governments that must make the decisions.

He pointed out that Brazil and the United States hold public hearings, but afterwards it is the governments that decide by decree or by law.

Viana also noted that the digital gap has two facets: financial inequalities, which make it difficult to attain Internet connection and purchase computers in poor countries; and political inequalities, arising from the inability of developing countries to influence decision-making with regard to the Internet.

In the first phase of the WSIS, participants decided to study the possibility of obtaining resources to finance the expansion of information and communications technologies in developing countries.

But the U.S. and Japanese representatives said there were no funds for that, said Viana.

The only option for financing emerged from an initiative put forth by the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, which was taken up by municipal authorities in a number of cities, led by Lyon and Geneva, to create a "digital solidarity fund".

Viana noted, however, that the fund is an initiative to help cities, while at a global level there is nothing, because donor nations are not interested.

Another aspect of the controversy focuses on the power exercised by the private sector and the U.S. government in Internet governance.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a U.S.-based private not-for-profit body, is exclusively responsible for assigning Internet names and addresses, such as domain names like .net, .edu or .com.

The WGIG stated that "No single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international Internet governance."

But Michael Gallagher, assistant secretary at the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, recently indicated that his government was not ready to give up the control it exercises.

The bloc of civil society organisations active in the WSIS expressed concern over Gallagher's statement, saying it "raised a number of questions" and implied that unilateral U.S. control would be maintained indefinitely.

Brazil, one of the countries that has been most active in calling for the democratisation of Internet governance, said the incident involving the creation of a top-level domain name for pornography websites had demonstrated U.S. power over the Internet.

Two months ago, ICANN officials approved the concept of the .xxx domain name.

Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet and the chairman of the ICANN board, said everything was ready for registering the domain name and that the only concerns were technical ones.

The Brazilian representatives argued that creating the .xxx domain name would pave the way for accepting the registration of others like .nazi, while the delegates from Spain said it would be like approving a domain name like .odio (.hate).

"ICANN has the tendency to adopt political decisions under the guise of technical criteria," said Viana.

ICANN only postponed the creation of the .xxx domain until Sep. 19 because the U.S. government sent a letter stating that it had received protests from church groups in the United States, said the Brazilian representative.

"That proves that there is a government that controls the entire system," he maintained.

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