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A Tale of Two Governance Models

Steve DelBianco

As many of us in the Internet community gear up for the ICANN meeting in Colombia next week, it's important to remember that not everybody embraces the multi-stakeholder approach that we've gradually learned to love.

Just a month ago, a group with a very different vision of how to run things wrapped up their own Internet governance meeting in Latin America. Their meeting was three times as long and accomplished about a third as much, but they'd still like to see their model replace the ICANN model.

There's something quaint about watching an old, timeworn bureaucracy struggling to understand and adapt to new technology. But it ain't so quaint when the bureaucracy in question is the United Nations, and the new technology is the Internet, over which the UN wants control — not just comprehension.

In a flurry of handwritten paper ballots, the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recently wrapped up a once-every-four-years meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico. Founded in 1865 to facilitate international telegraph agreements, the ITU predates the UN by more than 80 years. Now, the ITU wants to expand its reach beyond telegraph and telephones, as it approved new resolutions to take greater control over Internet governance. Over three long weeks in Mexico, the ITU approved resolutions aimed at expanding the organization's role in Internet governance.

Over its long history, the ITU has seen a few technologies come and go. But the leap between regulating plain old telephone service and regulating the global Internet is a leap too far.

Driving the ITU's Internet ambition is their belief that anything as important as the Internet simply must be brought under government control. As soon as the ITU realized that the Internet was more than a science project — a realization that struck the infamously slow-moving organization about a decade later than the rest of the world — it began seeking the power to regulate it.

But while the ITU was still regulating telephone circuits, the Internet was evolving a new form of international policy-making and governance. The new breed of open, non-governmental management groups draws on the collective talents of industry, technologists, civil society, and Internet stakeholders around the world. In these organizations — like ICANN and the IETF — representatives from governments, civil society and the private sector sit as equals, resolving matters through discussion and consensus building, rather than political horse-trading.

Compared to the UN's bureaucratic approach, this process is faster and more effective, so it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that career ITU bureaucrats don't like it one bit.

Educated in Leningrad and Moscow under Soviet rule, ITU head Hamadoun Toure hasn't been shy about his distaste for a system where governments share power with industry and civil society technologists. Toure actually called this multi-stakeholder model a "waste of time," and warned ICANN leaders that sooner or later governments would take greater control of the organization.

Toure's saber rattling may seem comical in light of the extraordinary global success the Internet has experienced without any help from his organization. But there's nothing funny about having the ITU apply its anachronistic and stifling bureaucracy to technology as vital and fast-moving as the Internet.

The most obvious problem with ITU control of the Internet is the glacial pace at which the organization responds to even the tiniest changes in its policy environment. Just last month, using paper ballots and special pens, the ITU took more than a week to elect a handful of officials, most of whom were running unopposed for positions in the bureaucracy.

This is an organization that holds its major policy meeting only once every four years — - about the amount of time it takes for an entire generation of Internet technology to be developed, released and replaced by something better. If technologists had to wait on the ITU's permission before releasing new innovations, we'd all have to learn patience while waiting for the next big thing.

Even more troubling is the way the United Nations' "one nation, one vote" policy is often manipulated by rich nations who can influence the votes of needy nations. China has been particularly effective at leveraging its economic investments in developing countries to curry favorable votes in the UN. That's going to have a chilling effect on the open Internet governance process that's worked so well to this point.

Ironically, the ITU's bureaucratic inefficiency might get in the way of its Internet regulatory ambitions. The ITU moves so very slowly that the global Internet community still has time to stay in the lead. It falls to all of us, then, to tell our governments to embrace the new breed of Internet governance and to keep the UN — their least effective bureaucracy — from meddling in a technology that is truly changing the world.

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice. More blog posts from Steve DelBianco can also be read here.

Related topics: DNS, ICANN, Internet Governance


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I often disagree with Steve, but he's Antony Van Couvering  –  Dec 01, 2010 8:24 AM PDT

I often disagree with Steve, but he's right on here. It's curious that although we can all find much to criticize about ICANN, very often we find it's preferable to the alternatives, from ITU control to the newest challenge from "peer-to-peer DNS" from Pirate Bay. 

The challenge from Pirate Bay is probably not a worry because it's too technical a "fix" in a world where most people couldn't really tell you the difference between an IP address and a domain name, and where ICANN, on the whole, does a pretty good job keeping a useful, unified root in place. 

ITU control of the Internet would be an excruciating torture.  Steve sets out some of the reasons in his article.  It's almost certain that if the ITU were able to exercise some veto power over ICANN (as the Russian delegation suggested during the recent ITU meeting), ICANN would become instantly meaningless, ICANN-controlled TLDs would become meaningless as quickly as the ITU tried to assert its rules over them, and Pirate-Bay-style solutions would suddenly have an appeal beyond the technical-libertarian group it appeals to today.

Politicians should realize that ICANN works on consensus not because it's an airy-fairy ideal that someone dreamed up, that we're all forced to follow.  It works that way because that's the only way it *can* work.  Attempts to control it will result in the "winner" holding an empty bag as people find another uncensored way to use networks to communicate with each other.  The idea that you can control of the Internet is delusional and betrays an ignorance of how the Internet works, and why people like to use it.

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