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Don’t Blame it on Rio

Last November in Athens, I wrote from the first Internet Governance Forum (IGF) that:

"I get the clear impression that this United Nations machine is just warming-up for a long-term battle over Internet Governance. They’re keen to relieve the private sector of its management role…"

Unfortunately, this machine is accelerating here at the second IGF meeting in Rio de Janeiro.

Governments who want to stomp-out dissidents or just stick a finger in the American eye are attempting to hijack the "Critical Internet Resources (CIR)" debate here in Rio. For them, the term "Protecting Critical Internet Resources" has become a euphemism for "killing ICANN." The motivations of repressive regimes are obvious, but as I’ve stated before, those who see ICANN as a mechanism for American imperialism over the Internet are grossly overestimating the power of ICANN.

It started with Minister Roberto Mangabeira Unger of Brazil, IGF’s host country, who briefly acknowledged ICANN’s history value in the Internet’s development, but then called in ICANN to hand-over its responsibilities to a "more including organization."

While Mr. Unger’s views represent a relatively small minority of the government officials here, they are a very vocal minority. And today, that vocal minority made their first effort to turn words into action.

At this afternoon’s closing session, the Russian delegate to the IGF announced his request for the UN Secretary General to create:

"…a special working group, an ad hoc working group to develop practical steps for transition of the Internet governance system to bring it under the control of the international community, including the administration of critical Internet resources."

In black and white it looks so innocuous. But this proposal puts into action a sentiment long expressed at the UN: something as important as the Internet simply HAS to be under government control. Moreover, at these meetings "what is said" is less important than "who is saying it." Russia is the spokesperson for a group of governments who variously loath US leadership at ICANN, resent the private sector’s role, and fear the rise of free expression on an uncensored Internet. (see AP article)

Russia’s proposal is not only about wresting control of the Internet from the American government. It is also about taking control away from those who invented and built it and a billion people around the world that use it.

The technology industry spent a trillion dollars to bring the Internet to a billion people, with little help from governments. We are investing even more to help fulfill IGF’s mandate to reach the next billion people – and that is what the world’s repressive regimes fear. The Russian request shoves the private sector out of room, leaving governments–including some notoriously repressive regimes–in control of a vital Internet resource.

The Real Travesty

Once again this game of power politics has completely overshadowed the real issues surrounding Critical Internet Resources. As Vint Cerf explained, CIR is much wider than the DNS or any question of ICANN’s interaction with the U.S. and other governments. This theme envisions CIR as a range of resources deemed critical to build capacity for online participation in the developing world, including:

  • increasing availability of reliable electrical service;
  • increasing deployment of wired and wireless broadband connectivity;
  • expanding the capacity for new IP connections through a transition to IPv6;
  • increasing the security of DNS service through deployment of DNSSEC; and
  • assuring the availability, security and reliability of root servers.

Fortunately, these topics were discussed at length in the sessions and workshops on the CIR track in Rio this week. Many companies, academics, non-governmental organizations, and net citizens recognize that these are the truly "critical" Internet resources that the developing world is most concerned about. At one of the wrap-up sessions today, an Internet leader from the developing world put it this way:

On this point, we note that at the time that Africa is starting deployment of its Internet network may in fact not be a good time to talk about any form of change in the governance or administration of the Internet. That might be as though pulling the rug from under us. — Nii Quaynor, Chairman of NCS, an ISP in Ghana

There was plenty of substantive progress made here, but the real needs and true promise of the IGF are being overshadowed by inter-governmental squabbles. But don’t blame it on Rio. Blame the governments who would sacrifice real progress just to grasp at illusory sliver of power.

–Steve DelBianco