‘Compromise’ deal may secure internet’s future

China has the highest number of internet users in the world - over 590 million. Keystone

As the world wide web marks its 25th anniversary, a Geneva-based internet governance expert tells why, despite these turbulent times, a global political compromise may be within reach to preserve its future.

This content was published on March 13, 2014 - 17:20
Simon Bradley in Geneva,

Jovan Kurbalija, the founding director of DiploFoundation, an organisation that trains diplomats in internet governance matters, believes the NETmundial meeting in o Paulo, Brazil on April 23-24 could set out the basic principles for a new internet governance deal.

That agreement would include the future status of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The US-based non-profit organisation responsible for assigning domains recently announced it had opened an office in Geneva.

In marking the web’s anniversary this week, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee used the occasion to warn that the internet was under threat from commerce and spying. His foundation has launched a “Web we want” campaign calling for a digital bill of rights in each country to ensure the internet stays free and open.

wikipedia What impact have the spying revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had on digital politics?

Jovan Kurbalija: They changed the spirit and atmosphere of internet governance worldwide. Internet governance, maybe more than many other policy processes, was based on a great deal of trust. The Snowden revelations have shaken this trust and without trust, realpolitik comes into play. People are suspicious of each other and there is an immediate drive to protect national interests and also to regulate.

Jovan Kurbalija

Jovan Kurbalija is the founding director of DiploFoundation, an organisation that trains diplomats in internet governance matters. He is also a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium.

His book An Introduction to Internet Governance has been translated into nine languages and is used as a textbook at universities worldwide.

He is currently a member of the High-Level Committee of the NETmundial that will take place from April 23-24 at São Paulo in Brazil.

His organisation are also involved in the creation of the Geneva Internet Platform. This Swiss government-backed project aims to act as a catalyst for internet governance discussions contributing to the preservation of unified internet and making more informed decisions. One objective is to help small and developing countries that have been marginalised to participate in internet governance debates.

End of insertion In a recent article you painted different scenarios over the next five years, from “status quo sliding into Wild West” to radical change towards an intergovernmental model like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). You favour a solution that involves the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and which would bring together governments, NGOs and private sector. Why is that?

J.K.: I’m optimistic as there is a convergence of interest to make some sort of deal. For the US it’s important to have a unified internet because of the economic, social and culture interests. For developing countries it’s important to have it for the social and economic development that is driven by the internet.

For EU countries and others like Switzerland and Norway it’s also highly relevant as they depend on global internet services, 80% of searches in Europe are made via Google. Maybe there will be enough enlightened wisdom to create a new formula to satisfy to some extent all of those specific interests and ensure the future growth of the internet. Will the NETmundial meeting on the future of internet governance provide a breakthrough?

J.K.: It is the hope of many. The way it has been organised by Brazil, which has been most affected publically by the Snowden revelations, and ICANN, the key institution in the current model, shows that there is a convergence of interest to find a new formula.

But Brazil will have a major challenge to find a compromise at NETmundial. It is make-or-break. A ‘compromise coalition’ has been emerging with Brazil, the EU, Norway, Switzerland and other like-minded countries. And there is a search for a formula that could be equally acceptable for each side of the internet divide.

The future status of ICANN will be essential. Preserving the multi-stakeholder composition of ICANN but outside US jurisdiction and supervision could be the basis for the compromise formula.

NETmundial is too close, and delicate compromises require a lot of time, but I am optimistic that the São Paulo meeting will set out the basic principles for a new internet governance deal that can be further developed by the end of 2015. 

A new formula

This is a difficult transitional period for internet governance as stakeholders seek a new formula, trying to reconcile the tension between the current model, led by non-governmental organisations and private firms, and the increasing demands for a stronger role of governments.

After recent telecom summits two blocs formed with Russia, China and some Arab states on one side seeking more power for International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the US and some Europeans wanting to maintain the status quo.

End of insertion ICANN President Fadi Chehadé last month announced that “huge changes” were afoot and he had the green light to explore reforms of ICANN including the possibility of creating a parallel international structure likely based in Geneva. How significant is this development?

J.K.: ICANN symbolises internet governance in many respects and one of the major controversies concerns US oversight over ICANN. NETmundial and the next few meetings will probably set the future elements for the future position of ICANN.

There is consensus worldwide that ICANN has to be globalised, including within the US which has this historic role, but the question is how it will be globalised. The most realistic option is to have it as a multi-stakeholder institution arranged as Chehadé indicated along the lines of an organisation like the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. This is probably why the Swiss legal system and Geneva are attractive for ICANN. Do you see the US giving up its control via ICANN and removing ICANN’s explicit link to the US department of commerce to allow it to position itself as a global organisation?

J.K.: If you analyse the power of the US over ICANN you can see the paradox of this power. The US has never used this oversight and removed a country from the internet even if it had the legal basis to do so.

ICANN is the cause of a lot of criticism. It’s in the interest of the US to remove this link and all signals from Washington point in this direction. If there is a proper global arrangement for the future of ICANN, the US will sever this umbilical cord between itself and ICANN. But you favour the IGF over ICANN or the ITU as a global multi-stakeholder institution to oversee internet governance. Why is that?

J.K.: ICANN manages global internet address book domains like .ch, .org or .com. This is extremely important but represents only a small segment of internet governance. What is missing is a forum where actors can address internet governance questions in a multidisciplinary way, from security, legal, economic, cultural, social to technical issues.

There is a need for serious constructive talk about the role of ITU. In this new emerging architecture one limitation for the ITU is that internet governance issues are less and less technical. They are more and more human rights, legal, economic and socio-cultural and ITU is not developed to deal with non-technical issues.

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