The first 25 years of Internet governance began with technicians at the helm. The 1990s saw an emerging struggle over the US government’s escalating attempts to dominate the Internet. Initial opposition came from the Internet’s technical community, but later a number of national governments also began to challenge the US strategy. The European Union (EU) largely backed the US. While some issues were resolved by the mid-2000s, others were likely to stay contested for a considerable time. (Many acronyms, all explained below, were generated in this process.)
Governance Without Governments
When the term “Internet governance” was introduced in the 1980s, it was used mainly to describe the specific forms of the technical management of the global core resources of the Internet: domain names, IP addresses, Internet protocols, and the root server system. The term “governance,” rather than “government,” signaled the difference between Internet regulation, mainly technical in nature and self-organized, and the legal regulation of telecommunications and broadcasting.
Internet pioneers rejected any government role in the emerging cyberspace. MIT’s Dave Clark proclaimed in 1992: “We believe in: rough consensus and running code.” Tim Berners-Lee (1998), world wide web inventor, insisted: “Our spiritual and social quest is for a set of rules which allow people to work together in harmony.” Many of these individuals had been shaped earlier by the 1960s. They feared government would restrict freedom of expression and the right to privacy, and would slow down or block Internet innovation. In the Internet’s first 20 years, regulation of codes, standards, and protocols was thrashed out among technicians in a bottom-up policy process.
Although in 1979 the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had initiated the “Internet Configuration Control Board” – later renamed “Internet Architecture Board” – to enable collaboration on technical development, DARPA kept a loose rein on the Board. The Board, however, oversaw several key civil society entities: the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the main body for standardizing Internet protocols; the policy process (RFC Editor) server; and the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). Mostly IETF activists created the Internet Society (ISOC) as a nonprofit in 1992 to fund the RFC Editor, and as a forum on the Internet’s social implications. The domain name system was managed until the early 1990s by a single person, Jon Postel, from the University of Southern California. He also allocated the blocks of IP addresses to the new private Regional Internet Registries, and delegated the management of Top Level Domains (TLDs), including country-code-based domains (ccTLDs).
In 1988 the US government encouraged Postel to bring more stability and security to the process. Thus, the “Internet Assigned Numbers Authority” (IANA) was established at Postel’s university institute. However, in 1990 oversight was switched from DARPA to the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA), a unit of the Department of Commerce (DoC). Postel’s institute continued to manage the system until the 1998 foundation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
In 1990, given the new world wide web, Postel proposed adding 150 new “generic Top Level Domains” (gTLDs) to the system. Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), a private company that managed .com, .net, and .org, as well as the A-root server, lobbied the US Congress and DoC in opposition. In 1992 the DoC contracted with NSI as sole domain name registrar for its three gTLDs. Postel then proposed to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to bring together technical organizations, private sector institutions, and intergovernmental organizations, launching a bottom-up Internet development process, and to create an “Interim Ad Hoc Committee” (IAHC), which was formed in 1996. Members were ISOC, IANA, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the International Trademark Association (INTA), and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). By inviting the latter two, Postel wanted to address national governments’ growing concerns about their role in Internet governance.
In 1997 IAHC members signed a Memorandum of Understanding proposing a Policy Oversight Committee (POC) to manage Internet core resources. A Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) would give other stakeholders an opportunity to provide advice to the POC. Within the POC, the technical community, with six representatives, could outvote the two governmental members (ITU and WIPO) and the three private sector members. The plan was to launch seven new generic domains (gTLDs), to license registrars for domain name registration in the gTLD name-space, and to move the A-root server from Virginia to Lake Geneva.
The US government and NSI were vigorously opposed. The Clinton administration invited proposals for a new private nonprofit corporation (NewCo) to manage Internet core resources. The EU supported this in principle, but criticized US-centrism. Ira Magaziner, US President Clinton’s Internet adviser and ICANN’s main architect, accepted the idea of an “international representative body” and proposed that the NewCo board of directors represent the Internet’s diversity. This enabled EU Commissioner Martin Bangemann to support DNS privatization. In September 1998 Postel’s draft by-laws for a NewCo, entitled Internet Assigned Names and Numbers Corporation, got a “green light” from the US Congress.
In November 1998 ICANN was formally incorporated under the “California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation Law for Charitable and Public Purposes.” Simultaneously, ICANN signed a new Memorandum of Understanding with the DoC. (Postel’s untimely death some days later abruptly ended his prominent role.) ICANN was designated as a multi-stakeholder organization. Initially the board of directors was to consist of nine private sector and technical community representatives, and nine from the At-Large membership (Internet users and civil society). Government representatives were ineligible, but the 190 UN member states were invited to form a “Governmental Advisory Committee” (GAC) to give the Board nonbinding advice.
ICANN, WSIS, And WGIG
ICANN started in spring 1999, with independence planned for the end of 2000. It rapidly opened up domain name registration, and a system to resolve domain name conflicts, but elsewhere progress was slow. There was confusion in particular on how to elect the nine At-Large directors. Furthermore, the relationship was tense between the ICANN board and the ccTLD managers. The majority operated under their countries’ national jurisdiction, and only wanted ICANN’s informal technical assistance. And out of nearly 100 proposals for new gTLDs, ICANN provisionally adopted just 7 (.info, .name, .biz, .coop, .museum, .pro, .aero). It was clear ICANN was not ready for independence. In October 2000 the Clinton administration passed on the issue to the next administration.
For the Bush administration, supported by established industrial interests rather than the Silicon Valley companies behind former vice president Gore, it was a low priority. Then 2001 saw the terrorist attacks on the USA, and ICANN, originally in part a “cyberdemocracy” project, now became a “cybersecurity” project. Within 12 months its by-laws were rewritten. Now, if the ICANN board rejected GAC advice, it had to tell the GAC why. The GAC could then require “consultations.” If these failed, ICANN had to report the fact to the global Internet community. Moreover, governments reserved their right to act independently from ICANN’s decisions, effectively instituting a government veto.
The new by-laws eliminated the nine At-Large directors and grouped all Internet users into an “At-Large Advisory Committee” (ALAC), which could nominate just one nonvoting board director. The Internet Protocol Supporting Organization was retitled the “Technical Liaison Group” (TLG), which, like the new “Stability and Security Advisory Committee,” could nominate just one nonvoting director to the board. A new Nominating Committee (NomCom) was created with the right to select half the board.
However, in the run-up to the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December 2003, more and more governments reviewed the political implications of these moves. A substantial number criticized ICANN for being under US government control and called for broader involvement in decision-making. The Chinese government, supported by a majority from developing countries, argued for an International Internet Treaty and the formation of an Intergovernmental Internet Organization.
The governance issue dominated final preparations for the Geneva Summit, intensified by the unclear definition of Internet governance. Some meant by it the management of technical Internet core resources and wanted private sector leadership, while others included all public policy dimensions and urged enhancing the roles of the ITU and governments. Yet even purely technical questions affected market developments and Internet security and stability. The US and EU governments vigorously supported private sector leadership. China and the Group of 77 called for governmental leadership. Both groups officially agreed that all stakeholders – governments, the private sector, and civil society, as well as intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations – should have a role, but not on which role.
The compromise was to ask the UN Secretary General to establish a “Working Group on Internet Governance” (WGIG) to define Internet governance, the public policy issues, and stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities. According to para. C6.13b of the Geneva Plan of Action, the group should be set up “in an open and inclusive process that ensures a mechanism for the full and active participation of governments, the private sector and civil society from both developing and developed countries, involving relevant intergovernmental and international organizations and forums” (WSIS 2003).
The Working Group On Internet Governance
WGIG stated that no single entity should govern the Internet, but that it needed better coordination and cooperation. WGIG recommended a high-level “Internet Governance Forum” (IGF) without any decision-making capacity, but could not agree about the oversight function and the specific role of the US government. The recommendations became the basis for the final negotiations during the third meeting of the WSIS Preparatory Committee (PrepCom3) in September 2005.
In advance of PrepCom3, the DoC reiterated four basic principles: “The United States Government intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet’s Domain Name and Addressing System (DNS). Given the Internet’s importance to the world’s economy, it is essential that the underlying DNS of the Internet remain stable and secure. As such, the United States is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.” While the DoC acknowledged other governments’ interests, it reasserted ICANN’s role as main manager of Internet core resources, but supported a continuation of dialogue on Internet governance.
The formal recognition of governments’ national sovereignty over domain name-space as defined by its ccTLD was crucial for the Chinese government and many third world governments, which feared the US government might interfere with their national Internet policies and even block the publication of the ccTLD zone file in the Internet root. The US government assurance that it had no such intention significantly eased subsequent negotiations.
During PrepCom3, China, Brazil, and India dropped or did not strongly pursue earlier positions. Only the EU proposed a “new cooperation model,” based on a public–private partnership concept. Day-to-day operations – previously ICANN’s job – should be the private sector’s responsibility, but governments should be more active on the “level of principle.” The US argued that this blurred “principle” and “day-to-day operations,” risking a silent mission creep by a new intergovernmental body leading to UN-style control over the Internet. This US–EU controversy quickly ascended to the highest levels in Washington and Brussels. The debate became overheated when some US senators announced they would reject any UN Internet takeover. In fact, neither WGIG nor the EU had proposed any such takeover. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan publicly rejected the idea, as did EU leaders. These declarations helped prepare for a compromise in the final negotiations before the November 2005
World Summit On The Information Society And Thereafter
Just hours before the Tunis summit, all parties agreed on some basic governance principles, as well as an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to help launch enhanced cooperation. The principles recognized national sovereignty over ccTLD domain names, the involvement of the private sector, civil society, and governments in all Internet governance, especially “that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the Internet” (WSIS 2005, para 68). This statement was a victory for governments critical of US control over the Internet root and ICANN. However, there was no procedure to downsize the overall accretion of US power in Internet matters.
The IGF was constituted for five years, was designed as a multi-stakeholder forum with no decision-making capacity, and substituted for the proposed intergovernmental body. It was anticipated it would produce important input to official organizations, such as ICANN for domain names, the IETF for standards, the ITU for infrastructure, and UNESCO for multilingualism, as they prepared projects and treaties. It would meet annually under the UN Secretary General’s aegis. “Enhanced cooperation” was not defined and disguised fundamental dissent. The US government interpreted it simply as more effective collaboration among existing organizations (e.g., the ITU, WIPO, ICANN, IETF), but other governments saw it as leading to a “new cooperation model” as proposed by the EU.
After Tunis, a “Joint Project Agreement” (JPA) between ICANN and the US substituted for the Memorandum of Understanding, giving ICANN more independence from the DoC. It had to report annually to the global community, but no longer periodically to the DoC, only to “consult” with it regularly. The JPA would terminate in October 2009 and ICANN was expected to be fully independent beyond that date. The EU welcomed the JPA as a move to reducing government involvement in day-to-day management.
ICANN itself over 2006 and 2007 opened more regional offices and created a network of 13 regional liaisons. It also improved its ccTLD relationships with key ccTLD managers. It enlarged the At-Large membership through contracting Memoranda of Understanding with regional At-Large organizations from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. And it finalized policies for introducing new gTLDs and for internationalized domain names. Closer cooperation in working groups and task forces strengthened the relationship between the GAC and the ICANN board. However, the .xxx TLD, and the WHOIS database, the special register with domain name holders’ contact details freely accessible (in particular to law enforcement and the music industry), remained controversial.
The first IGF took place successfully in November 2006. Over 1,500 experts, representing all stakeholder groups from developed and developing countries, discussed key issues such as openness, diversity, access, and security. The IGF’s multi-stakeholder mechanism was seen as a real innovation in international politics. There were no special name badges, reserved seats or special speaking rights for the individual stakeholder groups. Governmental and nongovernmental experts debated on an equal footing. The decision not to draft a final document removed the pressure to agree on certain issues by the meeting’s close. Another innovation was the voluntary “dynamic coalitions” among representatives from governments, private sector, and civil society on individual issues (e.g., spam, cybersecurity, privacy, freedom of expression).
Finally, enhanced cooperation started through informal consultations, mainly among governments. The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in 2006 resolved to request the ITU Secretary General to ask member states and sector members about their approach to enhanced cooperation. While the Secretary General said the ITU had no intention to govern the Internet, he would host a “World Telecommunication Policy Forum” on Internet issues in 2009. In 2010 the Joint Project Agreement would terminate, the IGF mandate would end, and the ITU would hold its next Plenipotentiary Conference. Probably issues such as internationalized domain names, alternative roots, net neutrality, cyber-crime, e-commerce, and individual human rights will dominate discussion. Global debate on how the Internet should be managed will continue.
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