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WSIS: What Is It 'Really' All About?

Until a few weeks ago, almost everyone in the Internet governance circus seemed to ignore the very existence of WSIS. After it popped up on international newspapers, however, things have been changing; and suddenly, I have started noticing plenty of negative reactions, on the lines of "we don't need WSIS, we don't need the UN, we don't need governments, we don't need internationalization - just go away from our network". However, I often find that these reactions are based on fundamental misunderstandings of the issues at stake; so please let me offer a different perspective.

First of all, WSIS is an eminently political process, talking about political problems. The issue here is not how to make the Internet work best - forget about that. The issue mostly is how to redistribute power and control about what is done with the Internet and how, without breaking its technical functionality too much.

To technical people, this of course seems like a useless nonsense; this is possibly one of the reasons behind the span of negative reactions.

Personally speaking, my opinion is quite the opposite; I think that the problems that were raised in WSIS are real, and also, extremely important. The failure by many to understand or even accept them is, in my opinion, quite worrying.

Let me make examples. In a previous post on CircleID, I have seen another commenter ask a number of questions, including this one: "4. The Plan of Action also calls for regional root servers. What is the advantage of promoting regional root servers, what benefits will they provide to Internet users?"

I guess that the person making the question does not see any advantage for such thing - and in fact, there is not a credible advantage for such a change in technical terms. However, regional root servers have a clear and compelling motivation in political terms; to put it simply and directly, if a war (military or commercial) breaks up between your country and the United States of America, you won't risk your economy collapsing and your communications dying off because all Internet domain names suddenly stop to resolve or point somewhere else as desired by your enemy.

And of course, this is a problem you can't even figure out if your country is the United States of America, which explains why so many people in the Internet industry fail to understand what WSIS is about. (Or, sometimes, pretend to do so.)

So, let's take another fundamental question that was previously posed: "What benefits does the United Nations offer over ICANN?"

Now, this question again shows a fundamental misunderstanding. We're not talking about a frequent flyer program, where you choose the one that gives you the biggest rewards; we're talking about control of a strategic resource, which is fundamental to each country for internal economical growth and for the circulation of ideas, news, know-how.

If we believe that the Internet is really for everyone, then it must be under the control of everyone - not just under the control of a few enlightened people from a few developed countries. And, like it or not, the citizens of the world - including those who can't afford a computer yet - are, and can only be, represented by their governments.

So, I'm not denying the practical objections that are being made to a direct governmental administration of the Internet, and in fact I do support them; an intergovernmental administration of the Internet would likely to be a tragedy for everyone; and anyway, the most effective "Internet governance" action for me in 2003 was installing SpamAssassin on my mail server - which reminds me that, in practical terms, Internet governance is the sum of a huge number of distributed collective actions. However, you have to understand and solve the political problem, before you can propose any practical solution that can work happily and globally in the long term.

And by the way, if you look at the past history of ICANN, you will see that its actual openness, transparency, and support for the general public interest has often been questionable; the lack of direct involvement by governments has mostly meant that control has been left in the hands of a few powerful lobbies. While I doubt that, in an UN/governmental system, average Internet users would have more power than they have now, I also doubt that they could have much less.

This is why I think that just saying "governmental administration won't work in practice" is not an answer to the real problem being raised at WSIS; and that ICANN itself should be the first and foremost promoter of yet another reform period, where its initial idea - a partnership between governments, industry, and users - can be upheld and evolved into a truly international structure, independent from any single country or interest group, multilingual, and immensely more diverse than ICANN is now.

By Vittorio Bertola, ICANN At Large Advisory Committee, Chairman
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