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Internet Governance What are we talking about?

Raúl Echeberría, 02/20/2004

Internet Governance
What are we talking about?
Raul Echeberría (1)
raul@lacnic.net

It has been several years since the discussion of different Internet Governance models began, and this discussion gained strength during the course of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) . In the end, at the World Summit meeting held in Geneva in December, 2003, no significant resolutions were adopted in relation to this subject, and major decisions were postponed until the second phase of the Summit which will be held in Tunisia in November, 2005.

Surprisingly, this became one of the most controversial issues during the preparation of the Summit, and for this reason this article attempts to clarify the different positions that exist in relation to the matter, while at the same time trying to contribute to a better understanding of the meaning of the extremely ambiguous and imprecise term that has been used up to now, namely "Internet Governance".

What is understood by Internet Governance?

A term more inappropriate than Internet Governance could not have been chosen. It is impossible to affirm that all persons involved in the discussion attribute the same meaning to this expression, and I personally believe that the opposite is true. There is obviously no Internet Government, nor is the Internet "governable" as a whole. There are numerous and extremely diverse aspects related to the Internet, some of which are discussed at different levels and by different organizations, while others are determined by local legislation and regulations.

A brief summary of some of the diverse aspects related to the Internet might include e-commerce, intellectual property, e-government, communications, human rights, education, privacy, among may others.

There is no single organization or forum where these issues are discussed and channeled, and there is no single body where all decisions are made and all standards established, and, therefore, the much renowned Internet Governance does not exist.

However, the term "Internet Governance" has acquired an existence of its own merely through its constant repetition. For this reason, whether or not many of us believe that this is a slightly old fashioned expression, the term is used to reference the Technical Administration and Coordination of Internet Resources.

In other words, when people speak of Internet Governance, they are referring fundamentally to the administration and management of domain names, of Internet addresses (IP numbers and autonomous numbers), the coordination of technical aspects and the definition of the technical parameters necessary for the operation of the domain name system, and root servers.

Current Situation

Now that we have clarified this matter we can focus on the matter under discussion.

Since the beginnings of the Internet, some organizations have assumed active roles in the administration and coordination of the aforementioned Internet resources.

The fact that the Internet was born as a project that depended on the US Government resulted in many of the functions necessary for what we could call the "Internet system" being performed by organizations under government contracts, and in many cases funded by US Government agencies.

Such is the case, for example, of IANA (www.iana.org), which is the organization responsible for the administration of the root of the domain name system and the administration of the unallocated space of Internet Number Resources (basically IP addresses).

Other organizations, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force – www.ietf.org , have operated independently, in an open and participative manner, from the outset. The IETF is an organization that operates in a completely open and participative manner; it is the forum where the standards for Internet architecture and operation are developed. Neither the IETF nor its related organizations (IAB, IESG, ….) depend directly or indirectly on any government.

Another relevant issue is that of root servers. There are thirteen similar servers, identified with the letters A to M, that constitute the basis, or rather the root, of the domain name system. There is no hierarchy among these thirteen servers; they are all at the same level. Ten of the thirteen root servers are located in the United States (http://www.root-servers.org/) and, of these ten servers, three are controlled by government organizations. The three root servers that are not located in the United States are two in Europe and the other in Japan. The selection of the organizations that operate the root servers is based on historical reasons, not on geographical diversity. These organizations are not under contract with the US government.

In 1996, a global discussion process began with the aim of reforming the "Internet System." This process culminated in October, 1998, with the creation of ICANN (www.icann.org). The idea was to build an international non-profit organization, with participation and representation of all interest groups related to the Internet. The United States government temporarily transferred to ICANN the functions that were under its control, through a contract. In theory, when a set of requirements established by the US government are satisfied, these functions will be transferred to ICANN permanently. The current contract subscribed between ICANN and the US government expires in the year 2006, and it is expected that at that time the transition will be finalized and that the functions currently performed by ICANN under the terms of the contract will be permanently transferred to this organization.

Internet Governance and the Summit

During the preparation process prior to the summit, surprisingly for many, there arose the debate on Internet resource administration models, that is to say, as we explained earlier, on Internet Governance. Some national governments stated the need for governments to have a greater degree of control on this matter, specifically the need for the functions that are currently in the hands of ICANN to be transferred to an intergovernmental organization. Some believe the ITU would be the appropriate organization, while others think some other organization within the framework of the United Nations would be better (although they do no specify which organization, or even if it should be a new organization).

The debate has always focused on the wording of certain paragraphs of the declaration of principles (http://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-s/md/03/wsis/doc/S03-WSIS-DOC-0004!!PDF-S.pdf – paragraph 50) and of the plan of action (http://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-s/md/03/wsis/doc/S03-WSIS-DOC-0005!!PDF-S.pdf – paragraph 13b), and it was never really clear what each national government understood by Internet Governance and what the fact that these tasks were absorbed by an intergovernmental organization implied.

For example, would this imply substituting ICANN by an intergovernmental organization, or is it the intention that ICANN's current Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) be replaced by an intergovernmental organization? As to the functions that would hypothetically be transferred to this intergovernmental organization, what is their scope? Do they include, for example, the current role of the IETF? Would the new organization have only policy supervision functions or would it also have operational functions?

It would seem that, even among the countries that promoted the idea of assigning a significant role to an intergovernmental organization, there are many and quite varied answers to these questions.

The Alternatives

The Internet system is much more complex than it sometimes may seem. Frequently the discussion is simplified by mentioning only ICANN, but there are many organizations involved, such as those we have already mentioned (IETF, IAB, IESG, ICANN), in addition to Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) and country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs), among others. The current Internet resource administration model is obviously perfectible, but it is participative, it is efficient, and it is admirably balanced. The public often demands greater transparency and participation within ICANN's structures, but it is clear that the levels of transparency and participation that have been reached are significantly greater than those of any intergovernmental organization.

Some national governments have managed to raise this issue, albeit in an imprecise manner, which as we said before was not originally a part of the Summit agenda.

The idea of an intergovernmental organization in charge of the abovementioned functions has not gained supporters among those persons and organizations more closely related to Internet operation. The most reasonable model seems to be to maintain these functions at participative organizations where all stakeholders may express their interests, where the private sector and civil society organizations maintain a major role, and obviously where governments also have an appropriate level of participation.

However, it is necessary to attend to some of the claims asserted by these governments, in some cases because they are fair and in others because, although they are not priorities, they have been placed in the spotlight and will remain there until answers are provided.

It is difficult to envision that the plan will be maintained whereby the transition from the United States Government to ICANN is to be completed in 2006. This would be a very risky element at the time of the second phase of the Summit in November 2005. It is at least necessary to generate facts that are convincing and will allow governments to clearly see, before the second phase of the Summit, that the transition will end and to clearly predict when this will happen.

ICANN needs to become more international, something on which it appears to be working. We need information in more languages, simultaneous translations during meetings, to continue with the process of opening regional offices in order to enhance communications with the stakeholders from each region, and processes that enable a higher degree of participation on the part of the public.

The root server issue is an Achilles' heel of the current system. Although the root servers that are located in the United States are operated by different organizations and the possibility of complot or conspiracy is absolutely minimal if not inexistent, and although technologies have been developed that allow the cloning of these servers and their multiplication in different parts of the world (there are current 35 copies of different original root servers and this number is constantly on the rise) thus eliminating the problem of the geographical concentration of the root servers, it is difficult to justify that ten of the thirteen original root servers are located in the same country. In the near future, ICANN, working jointly with other system organizations such as the IETF and the IAB among others, will probably have to prove that it is willing to review the current geographical distribution of these root servers, obviously in a responsible manner so that the stability of the network will not be compromised.

Are there any other important elements and factors that could justify transferring these functions to an intergovernmental organization? If someone believes there are, then it will be necessary for them to specify which are the things that are currently not working and which could function better within the framework that is being proposed. Today it is not possible to have a clear picture of what these elements might be. It will be the responsibility of national governments to clearly establish what requirements they wish to see satisfied and which are the changes that should be implemented, for them to consider that the solution may be achieved through the current structures.

Conclusions

- A better alternative to the current system and structures is not envisioned, one which could originate from an intergovernmental organization taking control of Internet Resource Administration.

- Within the framework of the current model, both third-world countries as well as the sectors that usually have the least influence on power structures have had active participation and influence, something that would have hardly been possible in an alternative model such as the one that is apparently being proposed.

- There is always much room for improvement, but the correct path appears to be to continue working on improving the current model.

- There is an agenda that has been imposed from outside this area but is now a fact of reality, and some of the issues that have been set forth will have to be solved sooner than we were planning to deal with them. The existence of the second phase of the Summit together with its entire process of preparation, which includes the formation of an Internet Governance Working Group for following up on this issue, inevitably implies new schedules and working times.

(1) Raúl Echeberría – Executive Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Address Registry – LACNIC.
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