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UN Internet Takeover Rumours Mask Bigger Governance Shortcomings

In recent months the Internet has been buzzing about the prospect of a United Nations "takeover" of the Internet, including responsibility for governance of the domain name system. The concern hit a fever pitch late last month when the U.S. Congress held hearings on the issue. A steady stream of technology companies and consumer groups expressed fears with potential U.N. and foreign government involvement and members of Congress pledged to take a strong stand against the takeover.

While a U.N. takeover would indeed be cause for serious concern, my weekly technology law column notes the reality is far more complex and somewhat less ominous. This issue has been festering for over 15 years and is less about whether there will be efforts at governmental control and more about which government controls.

The U.S. government established the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private, non-profit entity based in California in 1998, granting it responsibility for Internet governance leadership. ICANN was created with a vision of an open, transparent and multi-stakeholder approach, where Internet users, companies, interest groups, and governments could all participate in the development of policies such as the creation and management of new domain name extensions, the privacy rules associated with registration information, and the development of dispute resolution policies for contested domain names.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a U.N. body, was never happy with U.S. leadership and the ICANN model, embarking on several efforts to assert greater influence over Internet governance issues.

In 1996, it attempted to take control over the management of the domain name system but failed to do so (leading to the creation of ICANN). Several years later, it was the engine behind the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which raised the prospect of dramatic change to the Internet governance model and a far more assertive role for national governments. The ITU-backed WSIS initiative had support from many countries around the world, but the U.S. and its supporters (which included Canada) were able to keep the existing system largely intact.

The latest concerns arise from the World Conference on International Telecommunications, scheduled for Dubai later this year. The ITU is rumoured to be ready to take another shot at Internet governance control, a fear fueled by the notorious secrecy associated with the conference documents (the actual proposals were leaked on the Internet last week).

Given past history, there is little reason to believe the ITU will succeed. Yet the issue is likely to recur for as long as the U.S. treats the Internet as its own.

Successive administrations have regularly pressured ICANN on various policy matters, including efforts to get it to drop plans to create a dot-xxx domain (after years of global consultation and the development of a neutral process for approval) and expressed serious reservations with the introduction of hundreds of new domain name extensions. While a multi-stakeholder approach means that governments have an opportunity to express their views on policy issues, the U.S. seems to believe that some views count more than others.

In fact, some of the same U.S. politicians who expressed outrage over the ITU plans only months ago were supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act, the now-defeated controversial anti-piracy bill that included provisions that meddled with the domain name system.

The current controversy misses the bigger point that Internet governance still lacks a strong, universal commitment to a multi-stakeholder approach that includes governments, business, and civil society groups working together to develop policies that best reflect the views of the global Internet community.

Developing such policies is frustratingly time consuming and difficult — as any policy that implicates billions of people and the world's most important communication system would be. Yet an inclusive and transparent system offers far more than the current unappealing alternatives of either secretive U.N. involvement or U.S. assertion of greater control whenever challenging policy issues arise.

By Michael Geist, Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law

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Co-designer of the TCP/IP Protocols & the Architecture of the Internet


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