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ICANN Hugs China's Multilateral Internet Governance Initiative

Philip S. Corwin

Introductory note: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not of any client he represents or organization of which he is a member or otherwise affiliated.

Overview

The original title of this article was "ICANN CEO Hugs China's Multilateral Internet Governance Initiative". CEO has been dropped from the final version.

That deletion helps make one of its two essential points. Which is that since ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade accepted a formal advisory role with China's World Internet Conference (WIC, which is a proprietary project of the Chinese Communist Party) while still engaged in leading the U.S.-based technical coordinator of the DNS, and as that ICANN role almost surely played a decisive role in his being offered the position and is being prominently touted by China, then ICANN itself is inextricably linked to the WIC unless and until the organization acts to distance itself from the surprise action of its soon-departing CEO. That WIC connection may in turn create unanticipated issues in Washington for the IANA transition, where China is realistically perceived as a 21st century economic and military rival to the U.S. with a very different vision of how the world and human society should be shaped and the Internet's role in the social and economic order.

The second essential point is that, even in a world where ideals are imperfectly achieved and often overlooked when inconvenient, the Internet is still very much in its early stages of development and there are two fundamentally different and competing visions for its future governance. One is bottom up multistakeholder, with governments relegated to an advisory role, that celebrates open access to information and values privacy. The other is top down multilateral, with governments in charge and civil society expected to know its place, where blocking inconvenient information is openly condoned in the name of order, and the Internet is seen as a means of not just pervasive state surveillance but an active means of shaping "correct" views and behavior. This, like digital technology itself, is a binary choice between the 1 of freedom and the 0 of repression.

Up to now, ICANN has belonged to the first camp, a U.S.-created experiment in multistakeholderism to test if the greatest telecommunications technology in human history can be operated in a manner that minimizes governmental control and maximizes user freedom. WIC stands squarely in the second camp. Notwithstanding the attempts of jaded moral relativists to minimize the differences between the two visions they are nonetheless quite profound, and represent distinct and divergent paths; while the tracking technologies may be similar, there is a vast difference between serving up ads for relevant goods and services and alerting authorities of visits to forbidden sources of news and information. ICANN may try to straddle this philosophical divide but ultimately a choice must be made. Indeed, the very multistakeholder model (MSM) that the IANA transition seeks to preserve and strengthen is at sharp odds with China's multilateral (ML) Internet policy views.

Beyond those two essential themes, the other major points made in this article are:

  • The WIC is dedicated to advancing a multilateral view of an Internet subject to government censorship and used as a tool of pervasive state surveillance and behavior modification.
  • The WIC itself is a unilateral endeavor undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
  • CEO Chehade accepted the Co-Chair role while attending WIC as an ICANN representative and at ICANN's expense; spoke there on behalf of ICANN; and attended the first meeting of the Advisory Committee while in Wuzhen — yet did not advise ICANN's Board of his decision prior to its public announcement by China.
  • ICANN's Board has done little in reaction to this surprise development other than to echo Mr. Chehade's claim that this is a personal matter relating only to his post-ICANN activities.
  • The activities of the Advisory Committee Co-Chaired by Mr. Chehade will intensify during 2016 within the same time period that the NTIA and US Congress will be conducting intense review of ICANN's post-transition Accountability plan.
  • Alibaba, whose CEO shares WIC Co-Chair duties with Mr. Chehade, is playing an integral role in developing the algorithms that will implement China's mandatory Social Credit System (SCS) by 2020, a system designed to pervasively monitor and modify the views and behavior of all Chinese citizens. The company is also acquiring media companies that have, up to now, provided an independent voice and viewpoint within China, most notably Hong Kong's South China Press.
  • The linkage of ICANN with the WIC created by Mr. Chehade's decision may erect significant obstacles in Washington for completion of the IANA transition unless ICANN's Board takes expeditious steps to disassociate itself from its CEO's action. China, for multiple valid reasons, is regarded as a major economic and military rival to the U.S. as well as a base for IP infringement and state-sanctioned hacking against the U.S. government and business.
  • Mr. Chehade's involvement with WIC threatens to draw ICANN back into the very multilateral power politics that U.S. relinquishment of IANA oversight was intended to terminate.
  • A Washington reaction that inordinately delayed, much less scuttled, the IANA transition might, ironically, play into China's hands by keeping the MSM lashed to the U.S. as it competes among the nations of the world against the Chinese alternative. The Chinese play Go, not Chess. Their aim is not to capture the MSM but to encircle it with their own ML initiative.
  • Notwithstanding efforts to downplay the differences between the multistakeholder and multilateral models of Internet Governance (IG), they are at core fundamentally distinct and largely incompatible. Only one entity, be it civil society stakeholders or governments, can occupy the primary leadership or secondary advisory roles. ICANN and the IANA transition seek to preserve and advance the liberal democratic multistakeholder vision, while WIC is a CCP project to develop a multilateral competitor.

One final note: This article is in no way intended to be an attack on China and its people. The author is well aware of China's long and impressive history as well as its impressive economic strides over recent decades. He has welcomed Chinese companies as new members of ICANN's Business Constituency in his capacity as Chair of its Credentials Committee, and has become well acquainted with Chinese citizens who are active in China's robust domain investment sector.

Rather, it is published in the hope that the present government of China will reconsider its policies and allow its millions of Internet users access to uncensored information without concern for unceasing state surveillance and potential sanctions, ranging from loss of employment to incarceration. China's current Internet policies are an impediment to fully informed and open discourse, academic inquiry, and economic innovation, and are at odds with realizing the full potential of the Internet by the Chinese people. Hopes for progress depend on emphasizing the fundamental differences between the multistakeholder and multilateral visions of Internet technical control.

Conclusion

As competing models of Internet Governance are discussed, and implemented at the national and global levels, it is important to understand that ideals matter, even if their attainment in the real world is often imperfect.

One ideal is for an Internet led by stakeholders from the business and technology sectors, civil society, academia, and elsewhere. In this model, governments participate and advise, but do not command.

The competing model, advocated by China and other nations, places governments in charge and subordinates all other interests to those of the state.

What will the future bring? An Internet of, by, and for the people — or of, by, and for the state? An Internet in which the default position is free access to information, with the state intervening only to address high level threats to peace and security — or an Internet in which only websites that comport with the Party line can be viewed without technological evasion and potential legal and societal sanctions?

Mr. Chehade has chosen to become an advisor to the CCP's WIC, which appears to be dedicated to advancing a concept of cyber sovereignty in which the Internet becomes a major implementing tool of a pervasive, behavior modifying Social Credit System. The SCS will rank every individual on the basis of their fealty to the Chinese state and the goals of its single ruling party.

Let us hope that as the WIC project proceeds, and if he retains his Co-Chair role, he will at least loudly and publicly advise China that it is following the wrong path, and that it leads to a destination at odds with the Internet's near-unlimited potential to expand the bounds of human freedom.

His decision to accept a prominent role within the WIC is between him, his karma, and the ICANN Board. But the entire ICANN community, and beyond that the world, will be watching China's efforts to advance its vision of a censored and subservient Internet — as well as watching ICANN's Board to see if it intends to say or do more about its unanticipated entanglement with the WIC and its suffocating ML agenda.

An extended version of this article available for download (PDF).

By Philip S. Corwin, Founding Principal of Virtualaw LLC, a Washington, DC Law and Public Policy Firm. He also serves as Of Counsel to the IP-centric law firm of Greenberg & Lieberman. Views expressed in this article are solely his own.

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance

 
   
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