Nearly 4 years in the making, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is ready to start this Wednesday (Nov. 16) in Tunis, Tunisia. But today and tomorrow the world's diplomatic corps is meeting again—one last time—to see if it's possible for the world to develop a consensus on how the Internet should be governed. The question has already stymied two prior pre-Summit events. When the matter could not be settled at the first-phase Geneva Summit in 2003, it was referred to the U.N. for study by a group that would become known as the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG). The final PrepCom meeting in September, inspired by the WGIG report, also stalled over the governance issue. [Editor's note: For coverage of PrepCom, see the NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16114. For a summit preview, see Kaser's article in the November issue of Information Today at http://www.infotoday.com/it/nov05/kaser.shtml.]
What's happened in the interim?
The European Union stands firm on the proposal it made, to the chagrin of the United States, near the end of the September talks. The EU proposition attempted to strike a balance among opposing world views. While not conceding to the demands of certain governments for a heavy-handed, top-down, government-centered mechanism, the EU recommended a "light weight" mechanism.
The EU's proposal would give the nations some say in the much discussed domain naming and root server allocation Summit topics, and it advocated the creation of a separate forum for discussing matters of global policy, a popular summit idea. However, it's not certain that even the EU's compromise solution will succeed in ending the debate, most notably because the U.S. remains adamant that it will not relinquish control.
According to a report on CNET News, President Bush, in fact, met with members of the European Commission in mid-October, with no results reported.
The Bush administration, along with some members of Congress, have been asserting since June that, as a matter of principle, the U.S. government does not intend to give up control of either the Internet root servers or of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and its name assignment functions.
The U.S. principles issued last summer did not, however, deter the WSIS delegations from arguing Internet governance policy for 10 days in September. This deadlocked discussion was given a good cooling-off period before resuming in Tunis yesterday. The nations now have 2 days to reach closure before the Summit starts.
Though the EU proposal will get some floor time over the next 2 days, it is highly likely the U.S. will put up a resistance.
As yet another alternative, an ad hoc group of college professors calling itself the Internet Governance Project (IGP) issued a white paper targeted at WSIS-Tunis delegates earlier this month. If considered by summit delegates, it could spark a new round of debates.
The IGP paper recommends that, at the very least, Summit delegates should insist the U.S. government complete the privatization of ICANN. The central theme of the proposal states that if Internet governance cannot be globalized, then at least it could be "de-nationalized" by spinning off ICANN completely from the control of any government, a strategy the authors dub "status quo minus."
I caught up with ICANN president and CEO Paul Twomey late last week just before he headed off for the Internet governance talks in Tunis. "The whole debate," Twomey said, "has moved from saying ICANN can't do the job, to ICANN does a good job and now it's a question of how to do it. Some governments have the view that it's government's job to control. Some governments, including former secretaries of the Department of Commerce, have said government should be out of the business and ICANN should be privatized."
What if ICANN were actually completely spun off?
"The 21st century allows for much greater participation across constituencies," Twomey said. "Regardless of what happens, ICANN will be a multi-stakeholder organization. We are conscious that we have to serve a global internet community. And we are very committed to doing so."
Vinton Cerf, chairman of the ICANN board, is backing an internal initiative to consider reforming ICANN, even if the WSIS negotiations do not result in a formal recommendation to do so. In an internal letter last week, Cerf proposed that upcoming ICANN meetings should focus on how the role played by ICANN's existing Government Advisory Committee "could be strengthened within the existing multi-stakeholder mechanism and made more effective."
Twomey supports such discussions but denied that governments are currently left out of the process. "It's a question of myth versus reality," Twomey said. "Anyone can attend an ICANN meeting. Our process is completely open, even more open than [the] UN's process. We will continue to find more ways to have more people participate, such as regional liaisons in Latin America, Africa, The Caribbean, Middle East, and Pacific … We are working to arrange interactions … more people on the ground going country to country. We understand the challenge."
ICANN, like all other nonofficial representatives of sovereign states, has no direct say in the WSIS proceedings this week. "Our key mission in Tunis," Twomey said, "is to speak on behalf of the stewardship role ICANN plays in providing a single, stable Internet. It is the stability and security of the core infrastructure that we care about. We are concerned about anything that would result in haggling over the Internet. Some governments are interested in restricting content—we don't play a role in that."
Twomey said he does not foresee any consensus on Internet governance emerging at the summit this week. "We are still confused about what the EU proposal means," he said.
But, he noted, a " middle-of-the-road country alliance" has developed. "Canada, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and acting with [the] African Group," Twomey said, "have headed toward recommending a forum with non-binding discussion and continued evolution of institutions toward internationalization, not revolution."
It's clear that it's anybody's guess how the discussions this week will play out.