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As We Head to ICANN64 in Japan, Let’s Pay Attention to National and Global Context of the Region

Klaus Stoll

The author wishes to acknowledge the support and input of Dr. William Brocas.

Soon it'll be time again for some of us to pack our bags and head for the ICANN64 meeting in Kobe, Japan. Even if you plan to stay at home, it still will be helpful to understand the national and global context in which the meeting is taking place. One way to do that is by looking at Japan's Prime Minister's Shinzo Abe recent Keynote Speech at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, (Jan 23rd, 2019) entitled: "Toward a New Era of "Hope-Driven Economy"

Right at the start of his keynote, Abe establishes his credentials by declaring Japans return as a powerhouse of the world economy. He describes the Japan of December 2012, when he came into office, as a doomed country. Japan was losing its population, aging, unable to grow. "It was a wall of despair, a wall of Japanese pessimism." He wouldn't be much of a politician where he not to quickly move on and declare victory under his able leadership: "Defeatism about Japan is now defeated," by combating it with "womenomics," encouraging women to work. In the six years of his office, two million more women where employed, wages raised by 2 percent every year and the Japanese GDP grew by 10 percent. Despair "was wiped out by renewed hope.

It might be surprising to hear of hope, a very ambiguous term and concept, postulated by a battle-hardened master politician and economist. He justifies his declaration quickly by identifying digital data as the key economical driver and reason for hope. Abe differentiates between two types of data: i) Protected, "personal, anonymous data, and data embodying intellectual property, national security intelligence" and ii) the remainder of anonymous unprotected data, that"...we must enable the free flow of medical, industrial, traffic and other most useful, ...data to see no borders, repeat, no borders."

Hope and digital data have in common that they can be misplaced or founded on good reasons. Both are subject to human interpretation. We often choose our reasons for hope, and how we evaluate data, based on what we wish to hope for and wish the data to tell us, and not what we realistically can expect or what the data tells us." The general perception that Japanese culture is highly perceptive to technology, which might explain Abes easy going and simplistic approach to data, Without him mentioning it, we know that Abe is keenly aware of this as the Prime Minister of a country that recently experienced the nightmare of a major natural disasters and the consequent human-made nuclear disaster of Fukushima Daiichi. Before the disaster, there was clear and sufficient data that pointed to the risk of using the specific type of reactor so near to the coast, but the data was not given enough weight in the economically driven "hope" that the worst would not happen. Economic greed generated false hope based on manipulated data.

It seems that we must get used to the idea, that whenever a highly ranked politician gives a speech that is related to the Internet, he or she, will announce a new initiative. Abe calls urgently for" a new track looking at data governance" starting at the next G20 summit taking place in Osaka, June 2019, and under the roof of the WTO. He is not just calling for a new initiative, he also introduces the principles that should govern not only the initiative but "should top the agenda of our new economy": D.F.F.T., Data Free Flow with Trust.

Trust Abe introduces another ambiguous term. Trust like Hope and data can be misplaced or founded on good reasons. Trust comes from responsible, inclusive and transparent interaction between equal partners. These are all qualities for which the WTO is not known for, even in the relationship between member states, let alone in its ties with non-governmental stakeholders.

We know that the predatory use of data is an integral part of the global economy and informs many aspects of the WTO. This prompts us to ask a number of questions: How can we trust the WTO to make the right decisions about what constitutes personal data and how to protect it? Should the WTO now drive internet Governance and be the master of the IANA functions? Is economy the only driver of the Internet? Is economy the factor that determines what is possible online? Is it a definition that protects the digital integrity of every single digital user? Or is personal data seen as protected so long as no one can put it to economic use? Given today's hunger for ever more sophisticated data, there will be precious little data left, if any, that will be truly private.

Abe, unfortunately, neglects to cite a single reason why we should "trust" in the Data Free Flow, he only tells us what he "hopes" will be the outcome:

  1. Data will become the "great gap buster", "...helping to fill the gap between the rich and the less privileged". It is unquestioned that data can play a crucial role in achieving equality, but it is not the data that can do this, rather the way in which it is used that we have to be mindful of. Today's data is not used to bridge gaps but to make money. Today's data is not used to achieve UN Sustainable Development goals but the SDGs are used to establish mechanisms that allow to harvest more data and render more profits out of it. Data today is not harvested with the intent to prevent manmade disasters like Fukushima, but with profits in mind. For data to be the "great gap buster," requires that the exploitation is replaced by a "common good" approach.
  2. Abe goes on hoping that: "It is not the big, capital intensive industries, but rather we individuals who will benefit from both the fourth industrial revolution and what we call "Society 5.0, ...In Society 5.0, it is no longer capital but data that connects and drives everything." Here, he overlooks the fact that the "big capital-intensive industries" of the pre-digital age, the General Motors, Chevron and Bells of their times, have only been exchanged for new ones like the Googles, Microsoft, and Amazons of the data age. To be a player in the digital ecosystems is still a question of the ability to invest for profits. Nothing has changed for an individual; its exploitation is still the ultimate source of other people's wealth.
  3. Abe hopes that Data represents a remedy for a problem Japan shared with other countries: overflowing cities. "Through AI, IoT, and robotics, the data-driven Society 5.0 will bring about a new reality for urbanity. Our cities will be made much more livable for all sorts of people from all walks of life". Abe seems to assume that everybody wants and should live in cities and that data could help to effectively manage the urban masses. What about using data to ensure that people can remain in rural areas and even return to them from the big city? Again, it is about to which end data is used.

Abe then introduces the second part of his Osaka Track: Disruptive innovations for Climate Change —

"We must invite more and still more disruptive innovations," and "motivate more companies to spend greater amounts on disruptive innovations… I must say that spending money for a green earth and a blue ocean, once deemed costly, is now a growth generator. Decarbonation and profit-making can happen in tandem. There is absolutely no need to restrain our economic activities."

Throughout his whole speech, Abe limits everything digital to the sole purpose of aiding commerce. Hope, Trust, Data, Innovation, Climate Change, they are just seen as tools and opportunities to achieve economic means. One would be tempted to ask if it was not too macabre, was the Fukushima Daiichi disaster nothing more than an economic opportunity? Was it not better in the end to ignore the data and the warnings? Does the end always justify the means? On earth, as in Cyberspace?

These are the questions and the national political background on which we will gather in Kobe. Abe ends his keynote with declaring: Fortune has embraced my country. But one is tempted to ask back: whose fortune?
Going to Kobe we should:

  1. Hope, that we will accomplish the governance of the Internet through truly open, fair, inclusive and sustainable multi-stakeholder processes.
  2. Trust, that there are enough people left on this earth that know that you cannot eat money.
  3. Ensure that Data and Innovation are no longer synonyms of exploitation and enrichment of the few.
  4. We must also ask for forgiveness for the damage we do to the earth traveling to Kobe. At least, we should strive that the outcomes of the meeting offset the damages. Please consider carbon offsetting schemes alongside your plane tickets.

Abe lists at the end of his keynote several events of importance that Japan is hosting in the future. ICANN64 is not one of them. It would if ICANN finally acknowledged its responsibility for the consequences of the structures and processes built upon the DNS system. As long as ICANN continues to do its part as the enabler, without considering the consequences of its action, no political or economic stakeholders will see anymore in it than a malleable servant to their interests.

See you in Kobe!

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen
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