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Issue Brief


WGIG -- A Byte on Internet Freedom
NTU Issue Brief 157

November 14, 2005
By Kristina Rasmussen

Worldwide Internet usage has grown 160 percent since 2000,[1] and the spread of Internet access has served as a powerful force for connecting people, ideas, and goods across the globe. For iron-fisted regimes opposed to free speech and free association, the Internet's expansion poses stark challenges to their previously-unquestioned authority. Thankfully, the basic levers of the Internet are largely beyond the reach of dictatorial rulers, but the issue facing us today is how long this remains the case.

A serious, coordinated effort is underfoot to replace the efficient and adaptable organizational oversight of the Internet from the US-based, non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) with a new United Nations (UN) bureaucracy. Unable to control Web traffic to their liking, detractors of ICANN turned to the UN to assist in legitimizing an international administration scheme. Happy to oblige, the United Nations created the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) with instructions "to investigate and make proposals for action, as appropriate, on the governance of Internet."[2]

In July 2005, WGIG unsurprisingly justified its own existence and found a "need" for international governance because "no single Government should have a pre-eminent role"[3] over the Internet. WGIG went on to suggest three potential organizational models (out of a total of four) that called for the creation of an intergovernmental entity to control the Internet.[4]

Four Models for Internet Governance Proposed by WGIG

1) A Global Internet Council (GIC) taking over governance from the Commerce Department and replacing ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). ICANN would be accountable to GIC.

2) No specific oversight organization handling governance, but GAC's role possibly enhanced to "meet the concerns" of some governments on specific issues.

3) Handling of national policy issues, along with international issues that don't fall under another intergovernmental organization, by an International Internet Council (IIC).

4) Splitting Internet governance authority between a Global Internet Policy Council (GIPC), with private sector and civil society in "observer" roles; the World Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (WICANN), a "private sector-led," "reformed internationalized ICANN"; and a Global Internet Governance Forum (GIGF) for coordination.

Summary by Washington Internet Daily, 7/29/05[5]

Presently, ICANN serves as the organizing force of the Internet by ensuring every Internet address is unique and by accrediting registrars for domain names.[6] While primarily focused on technical aspects of the Internet, ICANN receives public policy input through the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which meets quarterly and is open to all national governments, multinational governmental organizations (e.g., the European Union), and treaty organizations (e.g., the United Nations).[7] ICANN operates under an agreement with the US Department of Commerce, and many commentators would agree that ICANN has done a decent, if not superb, job of keeping the Internet humming along nicely.

So why does the Internet need "governance" at all? What is it about current Internet governmental policy that is so disagreeable to some? The answers to these questions might be found in examining the membership and motives of the group that has put pen to paper and formally suggested an international Internet governing institution.

WGIG is composed of forty individuals hailing from national governments, the private sector, and civil society.[8] A significant portion of WGIG membership consists of representatives from countries (e.g., Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia) whose governments restrict speech on a regular basis even after signing onto a declaration stating "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression … to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."[9]

Moving control of the Internet under the auspices of an international body would provide a hospitable forum for less democratically-inclined governments to dictate Internet policy. During a recent meeting of WGIG in Geneva, a Chinese representative was quoted as saying: "in the future [the Internet] should be managed by all governments in terms of public policy."[10] And what does China's Internet public policy look like? According to the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative partnership between three leading academic institutions that analyzes filtering and surveillance practices, "China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world … buttressed by an equally complex series of laws and regulations that control the access to and publication of material online."[11]

In September 2005 China imposed additional restrictions on Internet usage with the intent of limiting the spread and scope of information available to Chinese citizens. According to a New York Times report, "major search engines and portals … must stop posting their own commentary articles and instead make available only pieces generated by government-controlled newspapers and news agencies." In addition, "private individuals or groups must register as ‘news organizations' before they can operate e-mail distribution lists that spread news or commentary." Furthermore, the regulations went on to say "the foremost responsibility of news sites on the Internet is to serve the people, serve socialism, [and] guide public opinion in the right direction."[12] Do we really want policies like these pressed upon international Internet users?

When asked if Internet users would have to follow UN-set policies, WGIG Chairman Nitin Desai claimed, "there is clearly an acceptance here that governments are not concerned with the technical and operational management of the Internet."[13] That is simply not true; many governments actually have a deep interest in manipulating technical communication capabilities as a means to restrict content.

An unencumbered Internet is critical for taxpaying citizens who seek greater fiscal accountability from the government and want to organize political movements on behalf of tax and spending reform. In the United States, petition drives for ballot measures like the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights are greatly assisted by the distribution power of the Internet. The sharing of information worldwide through websites like that of the World Taxpayers Associations has inarguably helped to spread ideas such as the flat tax across Eastern Europe. The Internet provides an alternate site to the "town square" as the place of assembly for citizens to interact and make demands of their government.

Since the current Internet status quo doesn't serve the narrow interests of authoritarian governments, these regimes have reverted to an old strategic ploy of piling onto the membership of sensitive UN bodies to exert undue pressure or ensure their own actions are not censured. An "International Internet Commission," chaired by China, complete with the corruption and inefficiency that stains many UN programs,[14] might not be far off.

The fact of the matter is that the UN often comes under criticism for serving the narrow interests of member states instead of promoting the grand principles the organization claims to champion. For example, the UN Human Rights Commission was intended to be the premier human rights body yet was discredited when Libya, a country frequently condemned by human rights groups, was elected committee chair in 2003. Apparently the Commission was also co-opted in order to exchange favors in external matters. In this case, Libya was nominated by African nations for the chairmanship, which was reported by a BBC correspondent as being an "unofficial quid pro quo … negotiated in return for financing the newly-created African Union."[15]

Disappointingly, the European Union (EU) has partnered with anti-ICANN countries to force an international governing body on Internet users. In September 2005 EU representatives split with the US and called for such an entity, along with a forum to discuss policy concerns. According to EU spokesperson Martin Selmayr, "the Internet is a global resource."[16] Never mind that the Internet became that global resource by keeping government regulations largely off the backs of technological innovators.

Aside from representing a serious threat to the unhampered and liberalized operating conditions that have encouraged the Internet to thrive, most of WGIG's proposals would create another bureaucratic sinkhole for taxpayer dollars. Needless to say, the power to tax accompanies the power to govern, and a new Internet governance body will need funding. Indeed, such raids on taxpayer wallets have already been called for by international actors. A 1999 UN report[17] envisions a "bit tax" on sending data through the Internet at a rate of 1 cent per 100 e-mails (assuming 10-kilobytes of data per e-mail). According to the report's calculations, levying such a tax on the 37 million people worldwide using the Internet in 1996[18] "would have yielded $70 billion." This "very small tax" on the nearly 1 billion people using the Internet today would equate to over 1.8 trillion dollars (not even accounting for the increased usage and size of e-mail), roughly equal to 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product of the United States.[19] The report envisioned using e-mail tax revenues to bring technology to developing countries by purchasing items such as "humidity-resistant, solar-powered computers."

Another potential money source is the "Digital Solidarity Fund" concept originally put forth by Senegal[20] and subsequently endorsed by world leaders at the UN's 2005 Millennium Summit, who "encourage[d] voluntary contributions to its financing."[21] While the Digital Solidarity Fund is currently organized as a Swiss law foundation, such funding mechanisms could feasibly transform into the future collectors of compulsory Internet taxes and fees if WGIG proposals came into fruition.

In fact, the second phase of the UN's ambitious Internet project will commence this month at a summit in Tunisia, which focuses on enacting agreed-upon "solutions" and finding "financing mechanisms" for Internet governance.22 The Internet presents a pot of gold that many governments want to get their hands on, and given recent oil-for-food scandals, it's not hard to imagine a "Digital Solidarity Fund" being used to give ruling members of regimes in the developing world shiny new computers rather than furnish the poor with Internet access.

For all the international hubbub over Internet governance, the body currently in charge of organizing the Internet actually wants to move in the exact opposite direction toward even more privatization. As mentioned earlier, ICANN currently operates under an agreement with the US Commerce Department, but the organization's director wants to officially cut these ties when the agreement expires in 2006. In the words of ICANN Director Paul Twomey, "the Internet is 200,000 private networks linked by private agreement. At the heart of the way the Internet works is that it grows quickly through the private sector model. It's not formulated by international treaty."23 Instead of a new international bureaucracy, Twomey suggests adding a multi-stakeholder discussion forum to ICANN for countries to express concerns, noting, "Americans are explicit that … they don't think it's the role of government to run the Internet."24

Thankfully, the United States has tried to cut short the WGIG proposals by emphasizing "that the current Internet system is working" and pledging "to support market-based approaches and private sector leadership in Internet development." The US State Department also chided the WGIG report for neglecting to encourage governments to look inward and create "the appropriate legal, regulatory, and policy environment that encourages privatization, competition, and liberalization."25 Congress has also awakened to the looming threat of UN-style Internet governance; Senator Norm Coleman and Representatives John Doolittle, Rick Boucher, and Bob Goodlatte have sponsored resolutions designed to guard the Internet from an international takeover. In the words of State Department official David Gross, "the UN will not be in charge of the Internet, period."[22]

Simply put, controlling Internet content while securing another income source through the United Nations seems an attractive policy outcome for politicians looking to suppress dissent and to prop-up financially ailing bureaucracies. The Internet is flourishing under the steady but light regulatory hand of the United States, and strangling the free flow of information and goods under the grip of yet another international UN establishment could be the most harmful of moves for a system that needs flexibility and freedom to innovate. The concept of international Internet governance should be rejected, and the proposals of the WGIG report moved to where they belong – the "trash bin" of every policymaker's computer.

Notes


[1] Internet World Statistics, "Internet Usage Statistics," http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.

[2] Working Group on Internet Governance, "About WGIG," http://www.wgig.org/About.html.

[3] Working Group on Internet Governance, "Report of the Working Group on Internet Governance," http://www.wgig.org/docs/WGIGREPORT.pdf.

[4] Working Group on Internet Governance, "Report of the Working Group on Internet Governance," http://www.wgig.org/docs/WGIGREPORT.pdf.

[6] Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, "FAQs," http://www.icann.org/faq/#WhatisICANN.

[7] Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, "The Internet Domain Name System," http://gac.icann.org/web/about/gac-outreach_English.htm.

[8] Working Group on Internet Governance, "The Working Group," http://www.wgig.org/members.html.

[9] World Summit on the Information Society, "Declaration of Principles," http://www.itu.int/wsis/docs/geneva/official/dop.html.

[10] Washington Internet Daily, "Developing Countries Back New Internet Oversight Body," June 15, 2005, http://www.warren-news.com/internetservices.htm.

[11] OpenNet Initiative, "Case Studies," April 14, 2005, http://www.opennetinitiative.net/modules.php?op=modload&name=Archive&file=index&req=viewarticle&artid=1.

[12] Joseph Kahn, "China Tightens Its Restrictions for News Media on the Internet," The New York Times, September 26, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/26/international/asia/26china.html.

[13] Kieren McCarthy, "Breaking America's Grip on the Net," The Guardian, October 6, 2005, http://technology.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,5301963-117422,00.html.

[14] Associated Press, "Annan Criticized for Oil-for-Food Corruption," September 7, 2005, http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2005-09-07-un-oilforfood_x.htm?csp=34.

[16] Aoife White, "EU Wants Shared Control of the Internet," Associated Press, September 30, 2005, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory?id=1174655.

[17] United Nations Development Programme, "Human Development Report 1999," http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/1999/en/.

[18] Global Policy Forum, "Internet Users," http://www.globalpolicy.org/globaliz/charts/internettable.htm.

[19] US Department of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis, "Gross Domestic Product and Related Measures," http://www.bea.gov/bea/newsrelarchive/2005/gdp305a.xls.

[20] Digital Solidarity Fund, "Background of the Digital Solidarity Fund," http://www.dsf-fsn.org/en/03-en.htm.

[21] United Nations General Assembly, "2005 World Summit Outcome," http://www.dsf-fsn.org/en/documents/N0551130_en.pdf.

22 International Telecommunications Union, "World Summit on the Information Society," http://www.itu.int/wsis/index.html.

23 Simon Hayes, "No Role for UN in ICANN," News.com (Australia), November 16, 2004, http://www.news.com.au/common/printpage/0,6093,113938900,00.html.

24 Ibid.

25 US Department of State, "Comments of the United States of America on Internet Governance," http://www.state.gov/e/eb/rls/othr/2005/51063.htm.

[22] Washington Internet Daily, "Read My Lips; No New Internet Governance at UN, Gross Says," September 13, 2005, http://www.warren-news.com/internetservices.htm.