The first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), concluded at the December 2003 meeting in Geneva, left two crucial issues open. The first deals with how to finance adequate implementation of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D). This involves advances in the fields of infrastructure, capacity-building, and sustainability, in addition to digital inclusion, especially in the least developed countries. The final report prepared by a Working Group specifically created by the UN (Task Force on Financing Mechanisms, TFFM) was officially disclosed in January 2005.
The second issue deals with global Internet governance - how to create, improve, or adapt global mechanisms that allow dealing with central issues derived from the increasing far-reaching presence of the Internet in the economics, politics, society, and culture of all nations: issues such as the definition and distribution of domain names and IP numbers; connection costs between countries; access right to infrastructure and to information; freedom of expression; security; and adequate use, etc. Here again, in accordance with the Plan of Action approved at the WSIS in Geneva, the UN created an international group to deal with the issue - the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), composed of 40 members from various countries and interest groups (governments, private sector, academic sector, civil society organizations). The final report from the WGIG was presented at the plenary session on July 18 in Geneva. Both reports will serve as input for the ¬preparatory process for the second phase of the WSIS to be held in Tunisia in November 2005.
Global Internet governance is a complex issue, which involves powerful interests. After all, it has to do with defining and improving global coordination of the different network components, from infrastructure to appropriate methods for possible supervision of content (which involves subjects that range from child pornography to undue use of e-mail for frauds). A consensus already exists: the way it is now cannot continue. There is no world forum to establish effective agreements related to the Internet for fair sharing of connection costs between countries, to define effective policies against “spam” and “phishing”, to guarantee freedom of expression, the right to information, and many other rights (and duties) that, with the inevitable presence of the Internet in our lives - even in the lives of people without access to it - become crucial.
A fundamental governance component is exercised by a nonprofit civil entity created by the Clinton administration in California in 1998 (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - ICANN). This entity coordinates world distribution of top-level domain names (both global, known as gTLDs or sTLDs, such as “.com”, “.net”, “.org”, “.aero” etc. as well as national, or ccTLDs, such as “.br”, “.iq”, “.fr” etc.), through management of the root servers that allow associating these domains with IP addresses (numbers that uniquely identify any computer connected to the Internet) and, with this, locate the respective computers anywhere on the Internet. The entity also coordinates world distribution of IP addresses and the adoption of the communication protocols used by the network. This set of ICANN attributions is what can be called “logical infrastructure governance” of the Internet.
In reality, this governance is exercised by what I call the “ICANN system”. Internal counseling and orientation mechanisms were created inside the organization, covering the administration of the global domain names (GNSO and an assembly of noncommercial users, NCUC), distribution of IP numbers (ASO/NRO), user space (ALAC), government space (GAC), country-code (domain) names supporting organization (ccNSO), among others. ICANN and the set of these internal organic mechanisms, in addition to some external mechanisms such as the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), similar organizations such as the ISOC (Internet Society), and at least one large company that exercises a quasi-monopoly on world commerce of global domain names (Verisign), constitute the “ICANN system” for logical infrastructure governance of the network - the only global governance system created specifically for the Internet to this date.
Control over ICANN is maintained by the US government through contracts involving the entity, the Federal Government, and Verisign. One of these contracts, a memorandum of agreement between ICANN and the Department of Commerce, will expire at the end of September 2006 - meaning that ICANN will begin to operate more autonomously (if even still subject to US Federal Laws and California legislation as a national nongovernmental organization). However, the US government has just made it clear in a recent declaration that, even with the end of the memorandum, it will not allow actual control of the logical infrastructure to keep from belonging to the United States, alleging network “security and stability” reasons.
The fact is that the set of contracts mentioned allows the US to have a sufficient legal base to take this position. Said in other words, the formal relation between ICANN and the Department of Commerce is such that ICANN works as a service concessionaire (“incumbent”) subject to regulation by the US Federal Government - as is the relationship between a telecommunications company and the FCC.
In practice, it is a fact that the decision-making process on the creation, assignment, and reassignment of global domain names (gTLDs or sTLDs) is a business process, with ICANN operating as a stock exchange or as a “broker” that either approves or does not approve the new combination of letters as a “commodity”. This activity today consumes practically all the entity’s time and resources, which in turn has its budget basically financed by the business of the g/sTLDs - making ICANN intrinsically dependent and the party interested in the business. To conclude that the decision-making process for any new gTLD or sTLD, or reassignment for any of those already existing, is influenced by this commercial relation is trivial.
There is no other explanation for the fact that ICANN risked its neck by approving the gTLD “.xxx”, even with the explicit or implicit opposition from several Council members, and even knowing that there would be resistance from governments and communities. In an anxiety to collect more resources for an increasingly growing budget through registries of g/sTLDs, ICANN ignores the fact that a global domain involves much more than just return on investment, requiring considerations on the extra-economic order, and taking into account that the GAC (representing governments) is too weak to express these views on time or in an effectively representative manner.
On the other hand, one of the world demands is that network governance as a whole (and not only its logical infrastructure) begin to be actually global, democratic, transparent, and pluralistic - that is, with representation of all interest groups in the decision-making process. Some countries even defend that logical infrastructure governance be delivered to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), a UN organization where more than 180 governments and nearly 650 telecommunications companies are represented, but which is not characterized (nor as is any other UN agency) by democracy, transparency, and pluralism.
In spite of ICANN’s efforts to show that it is transparent and democratic, some results of its work point in another direction, as is the recent case of “reassignment” of the gTLD “.net”, and the process of appointing directors, which is manipulated by members of the organization naming committee itself - plus the fact already mentioned that the organization is financially dependent on companies that commercialize global domain names. The recent US government declaration only contributed to deepen the World’s perception of this dependence of the entity on the United States government.
It is fundamental to search for a new type of global governance organizations, which can operate as forums for dispute resolution and also as mechanisms for coordination, recommendations, and standardization of the various network-related issues (which go from the administration of names and numbers to freedom of knowledge). If this means a single organization or a set of global organizations, with differentiated structures for the different functions, this is open.
The WGIG aimed to analyze the various scenarios of this structure and propose several alternatives to the debate from now until the Tunisia summit. Unfortunately, the “models” presented in the WGIG report were not detailed sufficiently and help very little in the formulation of all the complex details of a new governance system and the corresponding international convention that legitimates it for all other national governments.
If there are two clear consensuses in the WGIG final report, they are: in the first place, that world governance of any Internet component cannot be under the hegemony of a single government; secondly, that a global forum is necessary and urgent, even if in the beginning it only has counseling and dispute resolution functions. Civil society organization members in the WGIG were decisive in the process that converged towards this vision. In the models presented by the WGIG, it is hoped that the current ICANN can in some way become a true global organization, independent and autonomous (possibly through a Headquarters Agreement with the US government) in order to be introduced in the new governance structure.
However, there is much more missing than just the actual internationalization of ICANN. Two examples among those considered by the WGIG as the most important components (among over 40 issues) of a future global Internet governance system are illustrative: the international interconnection and security in message exchange.
If the Internet is often considered to be a horizontal global space for information interchange, crude reality shows the contrary in key network aspects. The connection between countries in practice reveals a “food chain” at the top of which are the large backbone operators, with the major ones being US multinationals. If the physical connection is ruled by international telecommunication agreements negotiated within the scope of the ITU, the same does not occur with the data transport layer.
Actually, what is at stake is who pays for the Internet bandwidth between countries, since by default the cost involves a bi-directional connection (that is, users in any two countries may in theory have access to all the Internet services offered in those two countries). If we are talking about a connection between two countries with similar development levels (Australia and the US, for example), today there is almost always bilateral negotiation that establishes an acceptable mutual costing arrangement for the two parties. Additionally, if the countries had similar cultures and languages, this negotiation is even more facilitated, and normally does not involve government intervention. As a result, the cost of access to the Internet for the end user is practically the same for all the developed countries, only varying the cost of local telecommunications involved. In countries where a fixed monthly subscription value is charged without charging excess pulses, such as the USA and Canada, the total cost of the connection via phone line (adding the phone bill with the Internet provider bill) is in general less than in the European countries, where pulses are charged for the connection time - a restriction eliminated in phone line connections using xDSL systems (known as broadband connections).
The situation is extremely unfavorable in less developed countries, which have little or no content of international interest to offer. In these cases, the bilateral bargaining power is null, and without any type of international intervention, these countries will always have a more expensive connection for the end users (the lower end of the “food chain” of the connection), which is aggravated by the much lower buying power of these users and by an ineffective and/or poorly distributed local connectivity infrastructure. In general, in these cases, the country will only be connected to the Internet if they pay the total costs of the available bandwidth (usually measured, for the majority of countries, in megabits or gigabits per second), even if users of the richest country use services located on servers in the poorest country. There is no agreement or international convention even being discussed to make this relationship less unequal. Global Internet governance will have to weigh this problem in order not to perpetuate the growing gap between connectivity for developed nations and poor nations.
With regards to security, there is no organization, mechanism, or global forum for governance established by international convention. There are private ¬initiatives, such as the world network of CERT certificatess and similar organizations, as well as networks that aim to fight so-called “spam” (sending of unsolicited electronic mail with an identification that has a false origin), but it is necessary to create much more effective mechanisms, which deal with preventive measures and development of secure systems for message exchange that can be standardized on a global scale.
Exchange of messages without agreed upon and effective origin authentication mechanisms is the most serious Internet security problem for the end user. Through vulnerabilities in the message exchange systems, thousands of users are victims of robbery of passwords and user ids by social engineering methods through “spam” (such as “phishing”, which is “fishing” of passwords and user ids through spams with deceitful content, associated with a temporary Web site from where the user involuntarily downloads a harmful program).
These are some senior examples of the governance issues that are outside the scope of ICANN and any other existing organization. Even the issues for which there are international organizations or UN agencies (such as the WIPO for the case of patents, copyrights, and trademarks, or the so-called “intellectual property rights”, or even the organizations tied to international trade), these entities do not adequately cover the demands and consequences of events, transactions, and processes within the scope of the Internet.
What will happen at the WSIS thematic preparatory subcommittee debates from now until Tunis, only time will tell, but it is crucial that civil entities participate intensely in this process in order to insist on plurality, transparency, and democracy as central bases for any future global governance mechanism, and that issues such as those identified and dozens of others pointed out by the WGIG be taken into consideration.
ALAC — At-Large Advisory Committee
ASO - Address Supporting Organization
ccNSO - Country-code [Domain] Names Supporting Organization
ccTLD - Country-code top-level domain
CERT - Computer Emergency Response Team
WSIS - World Summit on the Information Society
FCC - Federal Communications Commission
GAC - Government Advisory Committee
GNSO - Generic [Domain] Names Supporting Organization
WGIG - Working Group on Internet Governance
gTLD - Generic top-level domain
ICANN - Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
IETF - Internet Engineering Task Force
ISOC - Internet Society
NRO - Number Resource Organization
WIPO - World Intellectual Property Organization
sTLD - Sponsored top-level domain
ITU - International Telecommunication Union
xDSL - Digital subscriber line (ex.: ADSL)