In the last month of last year, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) ended in Dubai amid, not hugs and fanfare, but finger-pointing and acrimony. The end, much anticipated as it was, wasn't the finest hour for international cooperation for the global public interest.
Looking back, one would be forgiven to conclude that the WCIT-12 was doomed to fail. Never mind the fact that a lot of effort went into preparing for the conference, the issues were many and complex, the parties dug in, and in the end, there wasn't much goodwill left to bridge the differences between them. Broadly speaking, the WCIT-12 camps were two: one camp agreeing to the final treaty, and the other (including the US) refusing to sign it. A third camp consisted of those countries that were ineligible to cast their vote on the treaty.
The US based its arguments and opposition to the final treaty on five key issues, namely: (i) a perceived risk of applying the treaty to Internet Service Providers, governments or private network operators, (ii) spam, (iii) network security, (iv) Internet governance, and (v) the extension of the scope of the ITRs to include the Internet. Although the US arguments are fervent and sound coherent, many of them on closer examination are found to have more holes than Swiss cheese. Indeed, much of the sanctimonious noise from the US is mainly about protecting its national interest, and not genuine multi-stakeholderism.
US unilateralism and Internet governance
Take the issue of Internet governance. A lot of talk about the present Internet governance model being multi-stakeholder is bunk, and divorced from reality. This is especially the case with regards to developing countries, and Africa in particular. Not only is Africa's participation in Internet governance woeful, its share of global Internet economy is pittance. Google's 53.5 thousand employees generated far more revenue per capita ($0.7 million) in 2011 than the per capita GDP ($1,966) of all of 842 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition, it is folly for the US to decry the prospect of inserting "government control over Internet governance" especially the naming and addressing functions in the final treaty of WCIT-12. One only has to review the IANA Contract to see the chokehold the US government has over ICANN. The IANA Contract insists (section C.2.1) that the Contractor, ICANN, must be a wholly U.S. owned and operated firm (or US college or university), and incorporated in the US under US laws.
As if that is not enough control, the IANA Contract also adds that the Contractor must maintain a physical address in the US, and "be able to demonstrate that all primary operations and systems" remain in the US, and that the US government reserves the right inspect the premises, systems, and processes" of all components used to meet the obligations of the contract. Please tell me where multi-stakeholderism is in all of this.
The global DNS is based on a single authoritative root, and according to ICANN it is important that the content and operation of that root be coordinated by a central entity. ICANN is that entity, and under contract with the US-government to manage that root. Hence the logic: whoever controls the IANA contract controls the root, and we can talk about multi-stakeholderism until the cows come home, and it won't mean a thing. As a former member of the ICANN Board's IANA Committee I can tell you that the US-government does not take its oversight over the IANA function lightly, and this very role belies the incessant claims of its commitment to the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.
Weakening the multi-stakeholder model
Other areas and instances in which the US has flexed its muscle, and further weakened the multi-stakeholder model include the new gTLD program, and the management of the ICANN's registry contracts. Barely a month before the new gTLD application window was to open in January 2012, the US Senate and House of Representatives held much-heralded hearings on the new gTLD program.
Many observers felt apprehensive about the prospect of the entire program being derailed by congressional fiat, and not the multi-stakeholder process. It is not hard to imagine that a hearing by, say, the Kenyan Parliament would have received less, if any, attention. To its credit, the US Department of Commerce (DOC) came out strongly in favor of the continuation of the program, thus helping avoid having it scuttled by Congress.
The USDOC also flexed its muscle late last year when it issued an amendment to the renewal of the ICANN-Verisign .COM contract. Fittingly, the two-page USDOC amendment trumped the 21-page ICANN-Verisign contract, demonstrating in no uncertain terms who really is in charge.
Although the USDOC said the amendment was in the public interest, it was their own assessment of what that interest is. They didn't have to check with the rest of the world, who also buy .COM domains and have views on the public interest. Although ICANN opened the renewal of the .COM draft with Verisign to public comment (which is standard ICANN operating procedure), the USDOC still reserved, and exercised their right to intervene when it felt necessary. Again, the reality is that the US government can act unilaterally when it so decides.
The road to hell
The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. No matter how well-intentioned the position of the US, the fact of the matter is that the much heralded multi-stakeholder model is broken, and doesn't work for much of the world. Besides, why should people trust the judgment of the US which, in its infinite wisdom dragged the world into an unjustified and devastating war in Iraq?
With the conclusion of WCIT-12, a feeling of accomplishment seems to have come over many who so ardently fought against the ITU, and refused to sign the final treaty. Contrary to what many think, the ITU is not irrelevant to the Internet governance debate. Telephony and the Internet are not irreversibly married, and besides the ITU provides much more space than the deeply flawed multi-stakeholder Internet governance model that has ICANN at its heart. Although ICANN is addressing its shortcomings in making itself more relevant and responsive to its stakeholders, there is lot more work to be done.
It is also important to realize that although people might not, for now, be able to do much about US control, the bad blood that was spilled at WCIT-12 will poison the atmosphere in which US operates, further isolate it, and make it more difficult for it to get the support it needs to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Witness, for example, the difficulties the US has had pushing for any meaningful UN resolution on the Syrian crisis, and its failure to block efforts to declare Palestine a non-member State with observer status at the UN.
The road ahead
Sadly, this is not the first time the US has sulked out of international treaties and organizations, as it did to UNESCO in the early 1980's, as there are calls for it to do so again, and as it does at the UN on an almost routine basis. More often than not, time has proven them wrong; not the other way around.
But all hope is not lost. The US clearly recognizes the need to increase the number of countries that subscribe to the multi-stakeholder model, and is committed to understanding "the needs and challenges countries around the world have with respect to the Internet." Let's hope that moving forward, that commitment would ring true, because unilateralism, in whatever guise, has never worked in an increasingly global world.
By Katim S. Touray, International Development Consultant, and ICT for development advocate
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