TCS Daily

By Meelis Kitsing - November 15, 2005 12:00 AM

A bad proposal motivated by ugly politics threatens effective governance of the Internet.

For years, there has been criticism of US dominance of global Internet governance, and calls-to-arms to do something about it have been floating around international policy circles for years. Nonetheless, due to lack of support from strong vested interests, such searches for an alternative solution have been an intellectual exercise for the dedicated few.  

However, the current attempt by the European Union to transfer authority over Internet governance from the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations, is changing the overall state of affairs. Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University, has characterized ICANN as a "...bargain between the Internet technical hierarchy, a few major e-commerce and telecommunications firms, the intellectual property interests (including WIPO), the European Union, the US Department of Commerce and two other national governments..." According to Mueller, withdrawal of support for ICANN by any one of these interests "will require major adjustments in policy and structure."  

The change of position by the EU, which previously supported the current arrangement, has given the ITU's run for Internet governance some momentum. But the plan is a bad one and so are the reasons behind it.  

To be sure, the current governance of the Internet has some shortcomings of its own. ICANN is not simply an organization for technical coordination of the Internet. The ways in which technical questions are handled also carry important political implications. For instance, trademark protection is linked to domain name system administration. Accepting that ICANN represents a political bargain among powerful vested interests, it is difficult to see how UN governance of the Internet, in general, and the ITU, in particular, would free Internet governance from these issues without creating even worse unintended consequences.  

The UN has a large number of non-democracies as its members, and the ITU is dominated by monopolistic incumbent telecom companies and former monopolistic telecom companies, as well as their pals from respective government ministries. Giving representatives of incumbent telecom companies from non-democratic countries the right to vote on issues of Internet governance would increase the level of politicization of global Internet governance. It is doubtful that such governance would be more transparent than its current state.  

The real reason for wanting to throw the current arrangement out the window is much simpler: a desire to end perceived US hegemony in Internet governance. The US formally controls the domain name system root, even if international treaty organizations and other governments have a significant input in regard to the ICANN agenda. EU spokesman David Hendon told Reuters that many EU nations "just cannot accept that the Americans have control of the Internet in their countries." Such criticism of American hegemony in Internet governance seems to rest on some kind of romantic notion of autarky.  

Most importantly, the United States has been a benign hegemon in the global Internet governance and has efficiently delivered a global public good that has not conflicted with the interests of economically and politically open countries. So far, there is no evidence that US dominance has seriously hindered countries' ability to use and diffuse the Internet. Actually, quite the opposite is true. Instead of spending their energy on efforts to throw sand into the mechanism of global governance, interested parties should look at other international and domestic arrangements that continue to pose serious obstacles for Internet use and diffusion around the globe.  

If the priority of the EU and other countries is to facilitate Internet diffusion and encourage its use, then the list of priorities should head in the direction of further reform of domestic telecom markets instead of spending energy on transforming the global Internet governance from ICANN to the ITU. The current arrangement of Internet governance is far from perfect, but the EU-proposed alternative is far worse.

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