Internet Governance Outlook 2015: Two Processes, Many Venues, Four Baskets

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter
Wolfgang Kleinwächter

2015 has just started, but the calendar of events related to Internet Governance is already fully packed until the end of the year. The list of issues under discussion gets longer and longer and more and more people expect concrete results from the numerous meetings.

Whether we see the next stumbling step forward on the long march through the Internet Governance Ecosystem depends to a high degree on the outcomes of two different, but interrelated processes which will overshadow Internet discussion in 2015:

IANA Stewardship Transition

In March 2014, the US government announced that it is considering terminating the so-called IANA contract. Global discussion will peak in the coming months. In September 2015, the contract expires. Since the announcement was made nine months ago, a structured process has emerged where numerous communities, experts and working groups on various levels are developing ideas on how to proceed. An IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) — 30 individual experts representing all stakeholders, including governments — now awaits more specific proposals from three subgroups, dealing with very concrete related issues for protocols, numbers and names.

The broad-based public discussion has so far produced a number of options for possible solutions. The plan is that the ICG will bring the various ideas into a reasonable and workable plan which would match the criteria of the US government and send it later — via the ICANN Board — to the NTIA. The ICANN meetings in Singapore (February 2015) and Buenos Aires (June 2015) are great opportunities to discuss in open and transparent fora pros and cons of the proposals that would finally enable the US government to decide whether it will move towards a transition or renew the existing contract.

On the one hand, the IANA function is not a big deal. The role of the US government has over the years been purely clerical. One could compare the planned transition with the removal of the training wheels from a children's bicycle. Somebody has to doublecheck whether all communications among the involved parties have followed the agreed rules and authorize publication of TLD zone files in the root server system. On the other hand, this function is full of political symbolism. For years, it was the subject of speculation, myths and political mistrust. Insofar as it is not a surprise that the NTIA plan, aimed at finalizing a transition announced back in 1998, has doubters and opponents on both sides of the spectrum.

For some groups — including conservative members of the US Congress — the whole plan is a "bad idea". They want to keep the "Status Quo". In their eyes, there is a risk that the transition will open the door for a "capture" of the Internet by the "bad guys" (undemocratic governments). On the other side, there are groups that want to use this opportunity for a big jump to settle all other problems related to the management of critical Internet resources at once, far beyond the narrow functions described in the existing IANA contract. The risk is that a too ambitious plan that settles one problem has the potential to create two new ones.

It is not an easy task for the IGC to find the right balance. Strong safeguards against capture are needed and unintended side effects have to be avoided. This will provide hard work ahead for the multistakeholder Internet Governance community.

On the other hand, a failure of the IANA transition in September 2015 would not be a disaster for the Internet. It would just be a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, postponement of the transition would send wrong signals about the potential of the multistakeholder process and could have another unintended side effect in pushing the broader discussion in the Internet Governance macrocosm into a direction where old proposals of "Intergovernmental Internet Councils" could be recycled.

Renewal of the IGF Mandate

If there is no IANA transition in September 2015, some governments could use the high-level intergovernmental WSIS 10+ conference, scheduled for December 2015 in New York, to argue that the multistakeholder approach doesn't work and there is a need to go back to multilateral governmental oversight.

WSIS 10+ will review the Tunis Agenda from 2005. Ten years ago, the IANA contract was the subject of a very controversial discussion. Many governments did not accept the special stewardship role of the US government. Referring to the principle of sovereign equality of states — a principle under international law enshrined in the UN Charter — they argued that all governments should have the same rights. The compromise language of the Tunis Agenda can be found in Paragraph 68: "We recognize that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the Internet".

Since Tunis, the issue has been discussed in many IGF sessions and in the UNCSTD Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC) without any consensus. One group proposed replacing the sole oversight of the US government by an intergovernmental body where all governments have equal rights. The other group argued that a better solution is to have a DNS mechanism managed by the Internet community itself. In other words, if the IANA transition fails, WSIS 10+ would become a battlefield among governments over how to reorganize the Internet under governmental oversight.

There is still another problem. Efforts to renew the mandate of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) during the recent 69th General Assembly of the United Nations failed. The decision was postponed to the 70th General Assembly, which now will be in parallel with the final intergovernmental negotiation phase for WSIS 10+. The risk is high that renewal of the mandate of the IGF will become a political negotiation in which some governments seek a price for their agreement to give the IGF another five or ten years. One should not forget that the UN in New York is a purely intergovernmental body where all sorts of political power plays are performed. The political culture in the UN in New York is much more driven by 20th century "tit-for-tat" dealmaking than the political culture in the UN in Geneva, where the 21st century a multistakeholder approach has a lot of supporters.

Many Venues

But IANA transition, IGF renewal and preparation for WSIS 10+ are not the only items on the 2015 Internet Governance Agenda. There are numerous venues where Internet Governance issues will be discussed:

Along with those meetings there will be more than 50 national and regional IGFs around the globe. Nearly 20 global and regional meetings will be hosted by the I organisations (ICANN, IETF, RIRs and others). And one can add dozens of academic and business conferences where Internet Governance will be discussed.

As argued in a previous article at CircleID the growing Internet Governance Ecosystem looks more and more like a rain forest. In this "virtual rain forest", we have an endless and growing diversity of networks, services, applications, regimes and other properties which co-exist in a mutually interdependent mechanism of communication, coordination and collaboration. In the Internet Governance Eco-System many players with very different legal statuses operate on many different layers, on local, national, regional and international levels, driven by technical innovation, user needs, market opportunities and political interests. As a result, we see a very dynamic process where a broad variety of different regulatory, co-regulatory or self-regulatory regimes emerge, co-exist and complement or conflict with each other. And this system as a whole is decentralized, diversified and has no central authority.

Four Baskets

The absence of a central authority does not mean that there should not be something like an Internet Governance Agenda 2025. It is true that it is difficult to bring this broad diversity into a meaningful structure. One way to group the hundreds of separate issues could be to pack them into four baskets, knowing that each basket will be filled with another broad diversity of sub-issues and that all the baskets are more or less interlinked.

What would the priorities be in the four baskets of such an Internet Governance Agenda 2025?

Net Mundial: Another Step into Uncharted Territory

2014 saw an innovation in implementing this philosophy of sharing. The Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, held in Sao Paulo in April 2014, produced a remarkable outcome: It adopted a universal declaration of Internet Governance principles and a road map for further actions. This conference was the result of growing dissatisfaction with the lost trust in the Internet after the Snowden revelations. The Brazilian government and the I*organizations paved the way for an enhanced mechanism of policy-making, where all stakeholders participated not only in their respective roles and on an equal footing but also produced a concrete output in the form of the declaration of principles and the road map.

The Sao Paulo principles now constitute the most recognized set of norms for the governance of the Internet, supported by an overwhelming majority of governments and key players from the private sector, civil society and the technical community. The road map can be seen more or less as the skeleton for an Internet Governance Agenda 2025.

There was a clear message from Sao Paulo that the existing multistakeholder mechanisms for the discussion of Internet problems, in particular the IGF, need to be further strengthened. But the conference statement also said that a more concrete outcome has to be delivered by the multistakeholder processes to solve unresolved problems.

The NetMundial Initiative (NMI), that started as a followup to the Sao Paulo Conference in August 2014, is another opportunity to enhance the existing mechanism by bringing additional expertise, knowledge, resources and authority to the process. The nominated members of the new NMI Coordination Council have a unique chance to stabilize the still fragile multistakeholder Internet Governance processes by demonstrating that a collaborative approach on an equal footing would enable the various Internet constituencies to bring solutions to problems via concrete projects on a case by case basis.

There is a great potential for a win-win situation between the IGF and the NMI. Problems that are identified by the IGF can be forwarded by the NMI to the right places in the Internet Governance Ecosystem, where a settlement could probably be found. NMI could function like a root server in the DNS: It takes queries from one side of the network and sends it to the other side, where the answer could be found. In other words, NMI — in close linkage with the IGF — could function as an Internet Governance clearinghouse. The idea of such a clearinghouse is not new. It was proposed five years ago in the UNCSTD Working Group on IGF Improvement but never implemented.

It is up to the global community to specify the mission, mandate and the rules of procedure for the Sao Paulo Followup. There is now an open discussion period for the next three months. The team which has been selected by the three founding organizations —, ICANN and WEF — will have its first meeting on March 31, 2015. It remains to be seen how such a unique round table would work, where ministers from China, the US and Egypt and a Vice President from the EU Commission sit together on an equal footing with a former chair of the civil society Internet Governance Caucus (IGC), a director from Human Rights Watch (HRW), a former chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the father of the Internet in Africa, the secretary general of the World Information Technology and Service Alliance (WITSA) and the CEO of Alibaba.

It is too early to speculate how this new experiment will work. The good news is that one main driver of the NMI, the Brazilian, is also the main organizer of the forthcoming 10th IGF in Joao Pessoa. This will help to synergize and avoid misunderstandings. The timing is critical. The 10th IGF takes place in November 2015. In December 2015, the UNGA will have to decide on whether to renew the IGF mandate, and one week later. the intergovernmental WSIS 10+ is to adopt its new information society development agenda for the next ten years.

2015 will be indeed an exciting year for Internet Governance.

Updated 8 Jan 2015: Article revised for english corrections by Ronald Koven.

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus. He is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board (2013 – 2015) and served as Special Ambassador for the Net Mundial Initiative (2014 – 2016).

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation