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Swiss diplomat leads debate over policing the web

Markus Kummer, head of the Secretariat on Internet Governance swissinfo.ch

The United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has chosen Swiss diplomat, Markus Kummer, to broker international talks on who should police the web.

This content was published on April 6, 2004 - 08:28

In an interview with swissinfo, Kummer said his first task was to establish a Working Group on Internet Governance.

The question of internet governance generated heated debate during December’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva.

Governments are divided over issues such as rights to domain names, privacy, consumer protection and restrictions on spam, with many developing nations calling for the UN to play a greater role in regulating the internet.

Meanwhile, the American-backed Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is staunchly opposed to any system of control in which it does not have a key role.

Kummer said the working group would have its work cut out in agreeing a set of recommendations to be presented during the second phase of the WSIS, which will take place in Tunisia in 2005.

swissinfo: How broad is the working group’s mandate and how much involvement will the public, business and governments - from developing and industrialised nations - have in the debate?

Markus Kummer: There’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done. We hope to have the working group ready by the end of June and it will then be up to the body itself to determine its mandate.

Basically, it will be responsible for coming up with a definition of what internet governance means and possible recommendations for future action. The governments have decided that the working group should be very open and inclusive and that all stakeholders should have a say in its work, including developing countries.

swissinfo: The group’s recommendations are expected to form the basis for discussions during the next phase of the WSIS in Tunisia. Is that enough time to come up with concrete suggestions?

M.K.: The working group isn’t necessarily a problem-solving body as such. Its task is to develop a report and, in theory, they could say that the status quo is fine or call for better coordination between existing organisations.

It does not have the mandate of changing the world. But we need to see how it develops and maybe in the process of discussing the issue, some of the criticism of the status quo will lessen.

But you’re right, there’s very little time and I think it would be over-ambitious and over-optimistic to hope that we’ll come up with a radical proposal for change in such a short amount of time.

swissinfo: Will the working group tackle issues such as privacy and security?

M.K.: Again, this is open. So far, the discussion seems to point more to a slightly broader definition of internet governance than just the domain name and web address system.

Network security, privacy, consumer protection, and spam are also increasingly becoming problems and governments feel that these issues are important. But this is open and up to the working group to decide. It may also come to the conclusion that it might not be possible to deal with all of these issues in such a short time.

swissinfo: So you see this as the beginning of a very long debate?

M.K.: Presumably, yes… Obviously, there is a need for government cooperation and presumably that won’t stop in Tunisia. But we will carry on with some form of cooperation… What that will look like, we don’t know.

swissinfo: Have you been in touch with the authorities in the US and how will you respond if ICANN continues to insist on the importance of its role in regulating the internet address system?

M.K.: I have been in touch with US officials and I’ve met with representatives of ICANN. I will also meet with representatives of the private sector and civil society.

It’s obvious that we need to engage in dialogue with the US and I have an excellent relationship with my colleagues there. We’re not in the business of destroying ICANN and representatives of developing countries agree with this.

The fact is that there are so many different opinions that we have not been able to reach agreement on whether any single organisation should serve as a forum for issues related to internet governance. That’s why we came up with this working group.

What the result will be, we don’t know yet. But these types of processes can bring about slow change. A year ago, there was no need to discuss internet governance but the various stakeholders are now ready to engage in a constructive dialogue on what the future of the internet should look like.

And hopefully these discussions will contribute to the clarification of what the term “internet governance” really means.

swissinfo-interview: Anna Nelson

In brief

Markus Kummer has been asked to set up a working group charged with defining "internet governance".

The group’s recommendations will be presented during the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia in 2005.

The US-backed Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is demanding a key role in any internet address and domain name system.

Kummer was the Swiss foreign ministry’s top official dealing with information and communications technologies (ICTs).

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