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.
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:
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.
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.
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