The new month visits on us a new attempt to control the Internet; the UN's specialized agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is holding its quadrennial plenipotentiary meeting in Guadalajara, Jalisco this week. The governments assembled there are considering a few proposals that can best be described as piquant.
More Than Bulls Get Gored in Mexico
Consider this, from the group of (mostly) Russian-speaking governments: "Consideration should be given to… a specially-constituted group within ITU with the authority to veto decisions adopted by the ICANN Board of Directors." If you were not aware that ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — already has a board composed of a divers group of stakeholders, including ISPs, NGOs, engineers, policy experts and even a representative of the Canadian government, it does. Reading on, if you then find the language of the proposal under discussion opaque or labored, be reassured again, it is, and is meant to be. In translation, the proposal means this: when it comes to Internet governance, the UN, through the ITU, should hold veto power over the private sector.
Read the Fine Print
The challenge of the discussion unfolding in Guadalajara is that the damage is already done when a proposal like this hits the floor. Once it has been introduced it's a bit like a virus: you can't scotch it, and you can't ignore it. You have to morph it into something less harmful. The antibiotics at your disposal are not particularly helpful either: you can suggest more study of the matter ("study" in this context means that you kick the issue into the sidelines and examine it in committee for years), dilution of the original proposal (change the words "will" to something more equivocal such as "can" and "should" to "may"), or provide a counter proposal so antithetical to the original that you polarize the Member States and make a decision hard to reach. The problem there is that the lacuna created by the two opposing positions can be filled by some peacemaker, or somebody posing as one. A believable compromise between the camp opposing an ITU veto over ICANN board decisions and the camp seeking the veto, is language calling for the ITU to act "in the best interest of the Global Information Have-Nots." Can you spot the difference between this phrase and the one calling unequivocally for ITU veto power? That's because there isn't much. It would be up to the ITU to interpret the best interest of the Global Information Have-Nots, and to act accordingly.
Soft and Cuddly?
A lot of governments have got comfortable with the statism that characterized the last two years of Olympian fiscal and monetary policy, and the action being proposed in Guadalajara helps to satisfy a renewed taste for control. For these countries, an ITU veto sits well. They will couch it as a friendly international safeguard, you know, like Basel III, the Kyoto Protocol, or even the NPT. What the ITU is considering this week is very much in that vein. Only for those countries that have long defended free speech, or for those which have more recently cast off a totalitarian mantle that used control of news and information to defend the privileges of a corrupt state, there can be no such role for government, or even for a group of governments. That leads us to the conclusion that there should be no such role for the ITU or the UN.
Free Speech But No Voice
Unfortunately for ICANN, they do not have a voice at the ITU, so this veto is being debated in a court where the defendant is gagged. They will need the help of all the many and varied stakeholders that make up ICANN, the small and far-flung as well as those more immediately able to influence events in Mexico. While stakeholders still have something to say about Internet governance, they should exercise their right to do so down in Guadalajara. Y Rápido…
By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership
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