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UN Moves on Internet Governance: Latest Dispatch

Gregory Francis

Some unsettling plans declared themselves at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) this week as countries prepared for the up-coming treaty-making jamboree called the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). This community will now have to decide what it does about them.

Re-Writing Yesterday

It was significant to the CircleID community that the ITU's top dog — the Secretary General — appeared in person before the assembled countries with a reassurance: the broad and unusual WCIT treaty negotiation, though it may treat many issues, would not take up Internet governance. This was a welcome thought that one European delegation wanted to capture: could the Sec Gen's comments, they asked, be referenced in the document being prepared for the treaty conference?

What followed, in that opaque way in which UN bodies deal with issues of substance, was a debate on whether the WCIT group should make reference to such a palliative statement. Did the Sec Gen mean what he said? Who was empowered to decide? European delegations offered that he must mean it (he had said it, and they had no reason to doubt his sincerity) so there should be no harm in citing that important baseline. But some governments rejected the idea, and from significant countries too: Indonesia, Russia, among others. They made it clear that they wanted the WCIT to have scope for regulating the Internet.

It took a plain-spoken Swede to summarize the impasse: if the Secretary General of the ITU did mean what he said about the treaty not dealing with Internet governance, then there was no issue with noting the fact.

If, as some countries seemed to imply, this was not the Secretary General's view — and that Internet Governance should be addressed in the new treaty — that was even more significant.

Take the Hint

The meeting failed to decide on how to interpret the Secretary General, but for seasoned observers, and now for you, the debate had been joined and the prognosis is this:

Internet governance is something that some big countries want to address in a treaty to be drafted in December. The big hitters of the Internet Community thin on the ground at the ITU this week, will want to prepare themselves, and not just by huddling in London, Ottawa, or Washington, DC, but by taking the conversation well beyond the G8. When this negotiation comes around, if there is not a compelling case for a shared Internet governed by a multi-stakeholder environment, the hitherto silent majority of governments may be too easily swayed. Relying on reflexes that incline to Mitterrand more than von Mises, voices that today are still wan will be amplified to an irresistible chorus. It's a shared resource, they will sing to one another.

Why should the Internet, much like radiofrequencies, SDRs, Antarctica, or even whales, not be governed by a permanent and formal intergovernmental structure? We have until December to answer.

By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership

Related topics: Internet Governance

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