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The Future of Internet Governance? Comments on IGF 2018 Speech by French President Emmanuel Macron

Klaus Stoll

Macron has declared the Internet to be under threat. Without stepping back to question and explore the underlying causes of those threats, he uses them as a justification to propose a different approach to, albeit limited, current Internet Governance processes. Here we explore his proposals and some of the issues they generate.

He acknowledges that Civil Society and the private sector have been core drivers in the creation of the Internet. He argues that its benefits and existence are endangered by predatory practices. He proposes that, in order to maintain the Internet and save it from itself, governments must assume leadership through the instrument of regulations.

Throughout the speech, Macron replaces key digital values with governance values:

Multilateralism, (a formal alliance of multiple countries pursuing a common goal), displaces multistakeholderism (the current joint management of core Internet resources by governments, business and the civil society in their respective roles), as the driving force and core model for Internet Governance.

The proposition of Net Neutrality is replaced by "universal values" as defined in a pre-digital age. Macron references the creation and validity of universal values for real-world governance, but without recognizing the historical fact of their conditionality depending on context. He then argues for freely transposing these values, and associated governmental mechanisms, onto the digital realm. In doing so, he fails to acknowledge that the nature of the Internet transcends the concepts of nation-states, and that policy making and governance require their own consultative dialogues to reach consensus on the values and governance mechanisms necessary to enable the dignity and integrity of the global digital citizens.

As justification for his approach, Macon forwards two main arguments:

a) Protection through regulation is a government's core activity. If denied this role, governments are unable to protect their citizens and this lessons their reason to exist. He completely overlooks that the first task of government is to empower its citizens, to ensure their integrity and dignity in jointly designed policies, including their protection. It is the role of government to enshrine the rights and duties of citizenship, and then do everything necessary to protect that citizenship. Protection is about empowerment of personal dignity and integrity and not just protection from perceived threats. Protection without something that is worth protecting is meaningless. Does Macron want to engage in cyber war through regulations? Does it make sense to go to war for the very thing that undermines what we try to protect: the dignity and integrity of digital citizenship?

b) The challenge is regulation that "safeguards the vision of the founding fathers." What happened to the founding mothers? Women played key roles in the early development of the Internet, but the choice of language seems to leave them victims to a chauvinism that devalues the role of women and women's minds in technological change. As a façade of democracy, civil and private sector roles as whistle-blowers and implementation partners are proposed. His speech is an example of political "backward engineering." What he wants is power over the Internet. To gain this power, he needs to introduce regulations and taxes. In order to justify them, he must present them as measures that save an Internet that is under threat from itself. In order to realize his ambition, he declares existing Internet Governance efforts and structures outside his control as illegitimate and failing. He then introduces new Internet Government mechanisms or favors empowering existing ones that are already under his control. There is no place for engaged citizenship in the policy-making process.

Macron fails to acknowledge or consider the fundamental differences between the sovereignty of nation states and the scope of cyberspace on the Internet. People now live a dual national and digital reality calling for a global digital citizenship with its respective rights and responsibilities. Both citizenships are intermingled, but they are fundamentally different. Digital Citizenship exists within the sovereignty of global virtual spaces. There is a need to develop and implement governance structures where persons, entities and even governments are engaged stakeholders. All stakeholders — be they private users, NGOs, corporations or governments — are digital citizens with rights and responsibilities. No one stakeholder is more equal in the design or execution of those rights and responsibilities.

Macron observes that we had thousands of years to develop governance structures that foster and protect humankind in the literal world, but that we have had only a few decades to do the same for our digital citizenship within the Internet ecosystem. While various national, regional and international entities are engaged in Internet policy making, much of the focus is on privacy and security, on intellectual property, and on cybercrime and cyberwar. Less has focused on defining the digital rights and duties of stakeholders or embraced the notions empowered digital citizenship without which there is no basis for just and legitimate Internet Governance, leaving the integrity and sustainability of the Internet ecosystem at risk.

Macron, at best, is misguided and premature. One way or another there is a role for some of what he is proposing but not as government regulations dictated from above. They will best come from awareness and collaboration from below, and governance models that come out of truly engaged stakeholder dialogue.

One fear with Macron's starting point is regulations designed free of stakeholder engagement, saved by those who already have entitled access to policymaking, will soon lead to wider and wider regulation of the DNS itself. In the absence of a multistakeholder process, even to underpin multilateral policies, all stakeholders (Registries, Registrars, bloggers, etc.) will confront direct government interference, and not just in the domain name aspects of their businesses.

There are many areas that will target ICANN.org's core remit. Issues involving Internet oligopolies and the Internet fringes of the Internet ecosystem are rich in DNS-linked problems. The French Government has made its intentions clear when it recently demanded rights on second-level domain names like france.com. There are worries about a "China Internet" while, at the global level, China is just another stakeholder in the Internet ecosystem. There are both educational and governance challenges there.

There is much hallway chatter around the issues of Internet governance; about the risks of a wolf in the hen house (to borrow from Children's literature). Can you imagine the security, stability, and resilience of a UN-run Internet? Can you imagine the same run by the ITU? Can you imagine ICANN trying to cover all the bases of Internet ecosystem governance or even just downstream consequences of DNS deployment? I can't! But can you imagine a sustainable Internet ecosystem in which the UN, the ITU, ICANN, or Country X are not engaged as stakeholders in the governance processes? I can't! This is not exactly a case of hold your friends close and hold your enemies closer, but it is one of building knowledgeable and engaged stakeholder citizen communities.

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