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WSIS: Internet Governance Forum Endorsed by World Leaders
Posted On November 21, 2005
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How ICANN Got Off the Hook

Though the final resolution does not directly tackle the future role of ICANN, it does assert that "no nation"—which would include the U.S.—should have a say in another country's top-level domain name.

In reacting to the outcome, ICANN's CEO Paul Twomey told me that this is "consistent with the process we currently follow. ICANN will only discuss a country's domain name as the result of direct request from that country and does not involve any other country in the discussions."

Though confident of his position, Twomey did not escape the hot seat during the last round of PrepCom-3 debates. In the final hours of drama leading up to the decisions, chairman Desai had given Twomey 6 minutes of floor time (an amount of time generally allotted only to national delegations). ICANN's presentation last Monday came at a critical moment in the delegates' deliberations—less than 24 hours before their report was scheduled to be completed. Desai also gave Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi, chairman of ICANN's Government Advisory Committee, another 6 minutes to speak.

Together, Twomey and Tarmizi made a convincing argument that ICANN's governance structure is not only already open to participation by all, but that it is flexible and wants to respond to the concerns of nations who feel left out. It didn't hurt their argument that they were able to announce that the chairman of ICANN's Board, Vinton Cerf (a.k.a. "Father of the Internet" and vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google) sent a memo last week, inviting a discussion on how ICANN could address the issues arising out of WSIS at ICANN's own meeting in Vancouver. British Columbia, at the end of this month.

Following the ICANN presentations to the resumed PrepCom-3, it was the delegate from Brazil who proposed that the removal of a portion of the text in the draft document mentioning ICANN. "There are a wide range of organizations today taking care of the Internet," he said. "We should not single in on ICANN." Brazil's recommendation was immediately endorsed by Colombia, and ICANN disappeared from the final WSIS paragraphs on Internet governance.

While marveling at how ICANN first became the focus of the world's "battle of ideas" during the Summit process, Twomey observed: "In some respects what we've seen in WSIS is an epoch milestone of the 21st century. The new technologies are driving a new way of thinking. The result of the discussions is a much better understanding of how the Internet works and how various functions work and about how governments should be involved."

The Recommendations

Though there are many paragraphs of the final text that relate to Internet governance, here's the primary action item: " We ask the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in an open and inclusive process, to convene, by the second quarter of 2006, a meeting of the new forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue—called the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)."

But what is this body? And what will it do? The official text of the Tunis Agenda requires almost half an alphabet of bullet points to describe the forum's mandate.

Keywords that often surfaced in the debates were "lightweight," "multi-stakeholder," and, of course, "multilateral, democratic, and transparent"—a mantra often repeated by WSIS PrepCom-3 delegates from all parts of the world. [Editor's Note: "Transparent" in the U.N. context means open, non-secretive, and visible for all to see what's going on.]

Though many delegations had favored a "multi-stakeholder" approach, in the deliberations leading up to the Summit, there were divergent views on whether members of the commercial and private sector, "civil society" (a U.N. term meaning non-governmental organizations but extending to Joe and Jane public), and all other players should be on an equal footing with governments or act only as advisors to sovereign states.

At the end of the day, the Summit resolution recommends something very radical for some of the world's nations. It places governments in an advisory, rather than a supervisory, role. And in some interpretations, it even goes so far as to establish a level playing field, where governments are all just one other player when it comes to decisions about the Internet.

I n his opening remarks to the Summit, Secretary-General of the Summit Yoshio Utsumi (ITU) described the new approach in terms of the difference between the Internet and telecommunications infrastructures, noting that in the days of telephony each state regulated its own telecommunications infrastructure "in the way it saw fit."

"That [approach] does not work for information and communications technologies," Utsumi told the emissaries of the 176 nations. "The value of the Internet," he said, "derives from the value of the information created and consumed rather than from the structure itself. The existing [telecommunications] models do not work well. We need to embrace communications sovereignty. What matters is that everyone be guaranteed access to communications, rather than [governments attempting to] control the means of communication."

It is that difference that the WSIS resolution seems to embrace. It's that difference that Twomey was referring to when he called the outcome of the Summit an "epoch milestone."

And it is that thought that crosses my mind too as I read the now-polished statement that has emerged from this long Summit process. Between the lines, the Tunis Agenda seems to say that the nations of the world have finally come to understand that the Internet is not about centralized control. The technology not only presents the world with a new model for economic growth and human empowerment, but it presents a new model for how the world needs to be run.

Whether the nations are actually ready to beat their spears into plowshares remains to be seen.

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Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content.

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