For a book project I decided to extend my interview with Milton Mueller from November 2003 (Part I | Part II). Exclusively for CircleID readers, here's part III that deals with WSIS, WGIG, US-American bias and the Internet Governance Project.
GL: Ever since the first World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, held in December 2003, your interest in the process aspect of such a world summit has grown. Has it?
MM: It is true that I have become more deeply engaged in the WSIS civil society process, and especially the Internet Governance caucus of WSIS civil society. This happened because Internet governance moved to the center of the WSIS stage after the 2003 summit. I and others felt that the WSIS-CS Internet governance caucus was too much of a small clique and too timid in developing policy positions. Early on, it tended to be dominated by people who wanted to shield ICANN from WSIS. So with my colleagues Hans Klein, John Mathiason, Derrick Cogburn and Marc Holitscher, the Internet Governance Project was formed. Its purpose was and is to provide policy analysis capacity to WSIS civil society on Internet governance issues.
Many civil society actors who became involved in the first phase of WSIS have had a great deal of trouble relating to the key issues of the second phase, especially internet governance. In the first phase, civil society dealt with very broad social norms around such issues as "digital divide," gender, communication rights and so on. Internet governance, on the other hand, is a very specific institutional and political struggle that requires knowledge of how policy issues are related to technical systems.
One of the most interesting issues in the second phase was the process used by the Internet governance caucus to recommend names to the UN Secretary-General regarding who would represent civil society on the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG). In this case, civil society's organic structures (caucuses and working groups) interacted with the official UN structure not just in a consultative or advocacy role. It had to produce a real decision — a list of recommended names — and of course that decision was highly political, as the composition of the WGIG would affect its output. Many people wanted to be on the WGIG and not all of them could be, so competition for nominations was keen.
The process illustrated both the strengths and the weaknesses of civil society engagement with international institutions. On the strong side, the leaders of the internet governance caucus developed and cultivated a very close relationship with Markus Kummer, the Swiss diplomat who served as the secretariat of the WGIG. In return, Kummer didn't do anything with input from other civil society entities and privileged the recommendations of the Internet governance caucus. To everyone's amazement, virtually all of the names forwarded by the caucus were placed on the Working Group (many of us had assumed that only a few names would be selected from any list we developed). Most importantly, the people selected by the caucus have proved to be among the most informed and productive performers on the working group. I am referring to people like Karen Banks, Carlos Afonso, Wolfgang Kleinwachter, William Drake, Avri Doria and Raul Echeberria, to name a few of the most active ones. They also have done a fairly good job of consulting with other members of civil society in formulating positions. An active dialogue has been maintained on the caucus list regarding policy positions. The Internet Governance Project has contributed significantly to the advancement of that dialogue but so has the expertise of the other parties.
As a weakness, the process revealed WSIS civil society's lack of institutional capacity; by which I mean its inability to develop and follow an objective process, and its reliance on close-knit groups of friends rather than objective procedures to make decisions. The co-coordinators of the Internet governance caucus failed to define a nomination procedure until the last minute, and ultimately the process they used was so improvised and arbitrary that hard feelings and conflict were created. Indeed, they might have failed to come up with a procedure altogether had not their hand been forced by actions taken by ICANN's Noncommercial Users Constituency (NCUC). NCUC, which has a structure of elected officers, instituted its own process of nominating civil society people to the WGIG. Because of the existence of a charter and formally nominated and legitimated officers, this process went very smoothly. This seems to have prompted the caucus leaders to institute, finally, a selection/nomination procedure. But the procedure the caucus proposed was vague, rushed, and required improvisation during the crucial end game. Some parties, notably the free software groups, felt they had not been treated fairly. The Latin American caucus split over the selection process, too, although this may have happened regardless of the procedure used.
The point here is in some sense an obvious one, but one that many civil society actors still seem unwilling to face and accept: civil society engagement in policy making processes of global governance requires that consequential decisions be made by "civil society" as a collectivity. Unless there are procedures and rules for organizing "civil society," it will be incapable of responding to those requirements without huge upheavals and struggles among itself. But once it "bureaucratizes" itself by creating those structures, is it still "civil society?"
GL: Do you still feel that you have a deeply US-American viewpoint on Internet governance or is it politically not correct to ask about one's own cultural bias? Obviously it is hard for everyone to jump over one's own shadow.
MM: Of course my radically liberal approach to free expression and other civil liberties, my anti-statism and anti-militarism and my belief in economic freedom is deeply rooted in Anglo-American political traditions, going back to Locke and Jefferson. But I have been exposed to non-American perspectives for many, many years. From 1989 I lived in Hong Kong and China and studied the policy environments there. I know about Maoism and have observed first-hand the effects of British colonialism on economics and policy. I've done international comparative studies of telecommunications policies since the early 1990s. I confess a visceral dislike of ponderous, clubby European notions of corporatism and "co-regulation," but also feel increasingly alienated from the position of the US government and US business interests, who have abandoned the ideals the country claims to have been founded on. And I've recognized for years the difficulty many Americans have viewing Internet issues from a standpoint that transcends their own national perspective, because it is just a pale reflection of the same trouble they have in foreign policy. But hey, ordinary Europeans are probably as nationalistic as ordinary Americans. Most Geneva-based international organizations are Eurocentric in outlook. Asians are more nationalistic than Europeans and Americans.
GL: The Internet Governance debate seems not to have transcended beyond stereotypes like 'Californian neo-liberal corporates defending the medium of the free West against power-hungry Chinese communist party censors and crusty UN burocrats.' How could we move on from these clich�s?
MM: Don't forget: there are censors, inside and outside China, who would like to control the Internet. And the UN bureaucracy is annoying and plodding. That being said, these observations have very little relevance to the Internet governance debate, because the UN is in no position to control anything.
One good result of the WGIG process is that the involved international community has already moved beyond those cliches. No one is proposing that the UN control the Internet. There is growing consensus that control of the DNS root needs to be internationalized. It's hypocritical to talk about how terrible governments are when one government, the most powerful one in the world by any measure, holds unilateral power over one aspect of the Internet. Also, people have learned that just because ICANN is private does not means that it is a "free market, liberal" solution. ICANN is a regulatory agency with centralized control of key aspects of the Internet. And the work of NCUC on privacy and the Whois database is beginning to make it clearer and clearer that it is the US government and US-based IPR interests that want to exploit their control of current Internet governance arrangements for surveillance and regulation. So the "government control" rhetoric can be and is being turned against them.
We will debate these clich�s again, however, during the next stage, when or if the WGIG proposes something useful and WSIS adopts it. The debate will move into a broader public and people who want to prevent change will raise those old arguments again. That renewed debate is why it is important that the WGIG propose something more substantive than the creation of some poorly-defined new discussion forum. Creating a new bureaucracy will be hard to sell to a broader public; it will look like just expanding the UN bureaucracy to cater to a bunch of would-be regulators. There is already an alphabet soup of UN agencies with authority over different parts of the Internet and communications, and the solution is to create another one?
GL: Recently, as a part of the Internet Governance Project, you have launched the surprising idea that ICANN and ITU should compete with each other. You wrote: "People in the US Internet community love to beat up on the ITU, and I am not a big fan of it as an organization myself. The fact remains, however, that a lot of countries, especially developing ones, see it as a more legitimate forum for policy making and administration. So if ICANN and ITU represent two radically different governance regimes, why not let them compete with each other?" So instead of dialogue and compromise, which are vital parts of the dominant 'multistakeholder' approach, you suggest the opposite: competition. Would this go through a tender system, for instance?
MM: Actually, ICANN-ITU "competition" would constitute an important form of compromise. What you have now is a "winner take all" power struggle between the intergovernmental system of ITU and the private sector-led system of ICANN. We'd like to see that destructive power struggle end. A workable international regime might resolve this conflict by permitting both to co-exist and giving the key actors a choice among the two. One might be able to retain the best of both worlds.
Anyway, we need to talk about the whole proposal, not just the ITU - ICANN competition idea. We proposed reinstating democratic elections for ICANN's Board. To our surprise, we learned that many official representatives of civil society in the Internet governance caucus were unwilling to support that. But I think our proposal stiffened their spine a bit and we are now seeing support consolidate. We also proposed reforms in ICANN's constituency structure and the abolition of the Governmental Advisory Committee.
Regarding your reference to "multistakeholderism," I am starting the hate the word. As a catch word it serves as a Rorschach blob - everyone can see whatever they want in it. The word papers over the really difficult questions about institutional arrangements, power and rights. The point is not "stakeholders" representation per se. The point is individual rights and democratic procedure. Sometimes — many times, in fact — those bigger causes are advanced by permitting civil society to participate more fully in institutions that were once restricted to governments. But let's not fetishize those simple advances. Let's use them to institutionalize greater advances in global governance that facilitate freedom.
Some of the leaders of civil society in the WGIG would like for the final outcome of WGIG to be the creation of a new international organization which will serve as a "multistakeholder forum." My colleagues in the Internet Governance Project, in contrast, are advocating an international framework convention as the best next step. This would require governments to negotiate a set of globally agreed principles and norms regarding the governance of the Internet. This would turn the momentum of WSIS/WGIG into a lasting, influential process of institutional change at the international level.
Both ideas have strengths and weaknesses. A new discussion forum would facilitate continued participation by civil society groups, but might become irrelevant unless it has real power, which probably isn't possible due to rivalries with existing international organizations and their constituencies. A framework convention might be too government-centric, (although the process can be designed to include civil society) and some have argued that the parties are not ready for that level of negotiation.
By Geert Lovink
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