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Against a splinternet

A multi-stakeholder governance system must be worked out.

Written by Kamlesh Bajaj |
Updated: April 18, 2014 8:36:19 am
But what should the future ICANN look like? At the very minimum, its board will have to be restructured to include representation from governments. But what should the future ICANN look like? At the very minimum, its board will have to be restructured to include representation from governments.

A multi-stakeholder governance system must be worked out.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the US government announced its “intent to transition key internet domain name functions to the global multi-stakeholder community” in March. It has asked “the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition the current role played by [the] NTIA in the coordination of the internet’s domain name system (DNS)”. Further, the announcement said that the “NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an intergovernmental organisation solution”.

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions include the following: administering changes to the DNS, maintaining the integrity and availability of the root-zone, allocating IP addresses, protocol and other technical standards. While the ICANN proposes changes to the DNS, it is the NTIA that accords formal approval for changes.

In anticipation of such a transition, the ICANN and Brazil are holding a joint conference — NetMundial — in Sao Paulo next week to discuss ways to avoid the fragmentation of the internet and remove the unilateral oversight of the US government over the ICANN. It appears hopeful that the stewardship will be transferred to the “global community”. While global multi-stakeholderism is the recurrent theme in writings on this issue, it has not been defined.

Much is expected from the NetMundial conference. But will it end up being another talk shop like the Internet Governance Forum? Even seemingly innocuous technical decisions for DNS operations can have an impact on businesses and nations. Whether the ICANN should preserve and extend the DNS system is an important policy question.

Similarly, there is the issue of the secure signing of root servers. An ICANN panel has observed that “the current root operation is based in the US and subject to US jurisdiction”. Today, there are 13 root servers, which deliver the root zone to hundreds of thousands of individual users. But many countries feel that they are left out. The panel observes that while the current root operations are based in the US, and subject to US jurisdiction, it is possible to share control of the internet.

The ICANN’s strategy panel has observed that the US government created it “to privatise, increase competition in, and promote international participation in the DNS”. The panel has opined that a multi-stakeholder model should govern the internet. But how can the ICANN’s functions be globalised so that all stakeholders, including governments, are involved?

There is no denying that internet governance (IG) is a web of relationships. Organisations with political and societal objectives, like governments and law-enforcement agencies, have a stake in all the layers of the internet ecosystem — infrastructure, technical, content and social. But these layers do not start and end with the IANA’s functions. Some technical standards have a bearing on public policies as well. Likewise, at the infrastructure layer, Net-neutrality as a principle has been questioned by a US court.

Investigating cyber crimes and sharing data from servers located in different jurisdictions are points of contention. Then there are civil society clashes with government, which are getting exacerbated in cyberspace. “Offenders” frequently seek cover under foreign law. Intellectual property rights, copyrights and trademarks come under the ambit of a country’s laws but cyberspace “governs” them differently. At the NetMundial conference, issue-based roles of stakeholders will have to be agreed upon. Some of them may be vested with more of a say than others. For example, on cyber security, governments are the primary stakeholders that have to agree upon international policy and cooperation.

These points and many others will have to be resolved at the NetMundial conference to ensure that multi-stakeholder governance prevails. While some IG principles can be agreed upon, an ICANN report has concluded that a “constitutional moment” may never arrive, since the evolution of the internet continues. This point needs to be debated in light of the global efforts of the past decade. Milton Mueller has suggested that the mere “clerical” operations of the internet be agreed upon so that there is no disruption and the ICANN can become the final authority to take all policy decisions.

But what should the future ICANN look like? At the very minimum, its board will have to be restructured to include representation from governments, along with technical experts from all continents. Likewise, the other institutions that govern the internet will also have to be reshaped. Moreover, the ICANN will have to be an entity governed by international laws, not US law alone, so that countries can govern their parts of cyberspace according to their respective laws — without the balkanisation of the internet. The starting point for reforms will have to be the root — the ICANN itself.

The writer is CEO, Data Security Council of India. Views are personal

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