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Plutocrats and the Internet

Gregory Francis

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 RĂ¡pido…

By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance

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Source document? Kevin Murphy  –  Oct 04, 2010 9:52 AM PST

Good article.

It's a pity (and telling) that the documents you reference appear to be accessible only to ITU members.

Somebody really should make them available more widely.

Crocodile tears? Karl Auerbach  –  Oct 07, 2010 4:40 PM PST

I can't get too worked up about ICANN's exclusion from the ITU after ICANN has so long excluded the public community of internet users, for whose benefit ICANN obtains legal existence, from any meaningful role in ICANN's decision making processes.

Yes, the ITU is hardly a model for transparency; but ICANN is hardly a model for accountability to the public will.

There seems to be be a critical sentence left out of the quoted piece McTim  –  Oct 08, 2010 12:16 PM PST

From another source:

"Consideration should be given to the expediency of having the functions of GAC carried out by a specially-constituted group within ITU with the authority to veto decisions adopted by the ICANN Board of Directors. If it is so decided, the ITU Secretary-General should be instructed to consult ICANN on the matter."

Considering that they told the ICANN CEO that he wasn't welcome at their Plenipot meeting, I think any such "consultation" would be brief and negative (as in a "thanks, but no thanks") from ICANN.

California law has something (something very 1952-ish) about this Karl Auerbach  –  Oct 08, 2010 1:17 PM PST

California has a law leftover from the "are you now or ever been" period of the early 1950's.

It is the "Subversive Organization Registration Law" - Sections 35000 et seq of the California Corporations Code - http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/waisgate?WAISdocID=572067361+0+0+0&WAISaction=retrieve

ICANN is at risk of fitting into the definitions of that law, particularly section 35003(b): "Its policies, or any of them, are determined by or at the suggestion of, or in collaboration with, a foreign government or political subdivision thereof, an agent, agency, or instrumentality of a foreign government or a political subdivision thereof, a political party in a foreign country, or an international political organization."

Those definitions could include both ICANN's GAC and the ITU.

Of course this law is obsolete and ignored, but it remains on the books; it is merely dormant.  Gven the rising political paranoia in the US and elsewhere one has to wonder whether this silly law might be awakened.

(This may not be simply a California matter - I suspect that there are lots of these leftover laws on the books of many states and countries.)

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