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A Month in Africa Charts the Progress and Perils of Internet Governance

There may be no better illustration of how far we’ve come in Internet governance, than this: twice in the past 30 days, the global Internet community has gathered in sub-Saharan Africa to plot a path to bring the Internet to its next billion users.  Just weeks after wrapping up the sixth annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Kenya, Internet stakeholders from around the world traveled back to Africa for ICANN’s 42nd meeting in Dakar, Senegal.


Fifteen years ago, nearly every important decision about the Internet was made in the United States.  But in less than thirty days, the African continent will have hosted two of the most important global Internet policy events of the year.


In less than a decade, we have witnessed the emergence of something truly unprecedented.  The model represented by ICANN and the IGF is the first to put the management of a critical global resource in the hands of the very people who use it.


The multi-stakeholder experiment begun in the late 1990s has scored enough successes to become a blueprint for other global initiatives.  Successes like ICANN’s scheduled expansion of top-level domains, growing crowds at each IGF global meeting, and the spontaneous appearance of regional and national IGFs.


Attacks on the multi-stakeholder model are coming fast and from multiple quarters.


As with any progressive change, this revolutionary governance model is not without its critics. Some of us naively hoped that as the multi-stakeholder model racked up successes and built its track record for ensuring the stability and functionality of the Internet, it might rise above reproach.


But as I say, that was a naive hope.  Attacks on the multi-stakeholder model are coming fast and from multiple quarters.


Traditional power brokers in some governments seek to squelch an emerging model that asks them to participate as equals rather than rulers.  Two proposals surfaced over those eventful past 30 days: one from Russia, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; and another by India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA).  These proposals would consolidate power for global Internet oversight in the hands of state actors, and by extension reduce the role of nongovernmental stakeholders in industry and civil society.


The IBSA proposal is particularly insidious. Without mentioning ICANN or the IGF directly, it calls for creating a new body within the United Nations to oversee Internet policy. What the proposal does not say, but what is clearly inferred, is that existing, multi-stakeholder bodies like the IGF and ICANN would either be marginalized and/or subjugated by this new UN entity.


If I can offer one observation to my fellow travelers in the multi-stakeholder community, it is this: we’ve become dangerously complacent about the inevitability of an Internet management model where we have a significant say about policies.  In reality, our individual efforts and earnestness are not enough to defend us from those who would replace our model with the top-down tradition favored by governments.  If we cannot deliver enforceable policies to maintain security and integrity of the Internet, we will be replaced.


At the IGF In Nairobi, I cited the multi-species cooperation at a watering hole on the African savannah as a lesson for our own multi-stakeholder community to follow.  If there’s one thing you notice about the apparent calm at the watering hole, it’s how the animals are persistently watchful for external threats. Animals that fail to cooperate in collective vigilance and defense endanger themselves and at most a few other unlucky victims in the herd.


But when it comes to defending the multi-stakeholder model, a lack of attention and cooperation puts the whole species at permanent risk of extinction.