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Facing the Facts on Internet Governance

Michael Geist

Having just arrived in Tunis for the WSIS, my weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, freely available version) focuses on the Internet governance issues that are likely to dominate discussions all week. I argue that claims about a "digital Munich" and a U.N. takeover are not helpful to arriving at an appropriate solution (though based on discussions this morning it does not appear that things are moving very far away from such claims).

Instead, I suggest that three facts must be acknowledged. First, the current system requires change as it is difficult to fault the European Union and other foreign governments for expressing discomfort with a system that grants ultimate control over the Internet to a single government. Second, ICANN has consistently angered the Internet community by developing policies with little transparency or public consultation. Despite some recent change, the VeriSign settlement has all the hallmarks of the "old" ICANN.

Third, creating an ICANN alternative need not lead to U.N. control over the Internet nor to greater global censorship. Contrary to many published reports, the EU has not advocated a U.N. controlled system. Rather, it has called for the creation of a new forum built on existing structures. Although it is true that national governments would be free to establish controls over Internet use within their own borders, they already enjoy such powers. China may have instituted troubling censorship controls, but many democratic countries have also created national rules that limit online freedoms.

If negotiators are able to shift from rhetoric to reality, a suitable compromise should be based on the principles of transparency, inclusiveness, and respect for national sovereignty.

Transparency will facilitate the development of Internet governance policies in an open, predictable manner with input opportunities for all stakeholders.

Inclusiveness will ensure that no single government retains ultimate control over the Internet's core functions. Moreover, it will require a greater voice for more than just national governments — civil society, corporate interests, and technical experts must also play an important role in the decision making process.

Respect for sovereign choice means accepting the inevitability that some governments will adopt policies that we may find objectionable since the right for democracies to make choices that support online freedoms is premised on the same principle - namely, that national governments are entitled to make their own domestic choices free from interference provided that they are consistent with international law.

The current Internet governance system does not meet these principles. While a positive resolution seems unlikely, this week's meeting in Tunis provides a long overdue opportunity to change that.

By Michael Geist, Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law
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Re: Facing the Facts on Internet Governance The Famous Brett Watson  –  Nov 14, 2005 4:32 PM PST

A shift from rhetoric to reality would be a breath of fresh air indeed. The sheer quantity of propaganda surrounding this issue makes me wonder whether there is any interest in matters of fact at all, or whether it's a simple case of "any means to the desired end".

Even The Register is managing to sound calculating and rational in this environment, which is a sure sign that something is amiss.

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