At a time when bipartisanship can be a path to political ruin, legislation on, of all things, Internet governance has united Senators like Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) along with Representatives like Pete Sessions (R-TX) and Ed Markey (D-MA). In fact, Congress is poised to pass this legislation, which would call on the U.S. government to support “a global Internet free from government control” and to “preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today.”
Yes, the bill sounds like a congressional Internet group hug akin to National Honey Badger Awareness Week. However, the timing, symbolism and substance of the legislation, as well as congressional unanimity for it, are actually significant. This December, government representatives will gather in Dubai for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), where various countries, including Russia and China, are prepared to chip away at how the Internet is governed, to the detriment of the billions that currently have, and the billions more that desire, the benefits of a virtual world of expression and e-commerce.
The Internet’s rapid evolution as a central change agent in global economics, politics, and society is well known, but the Internet’s governance structure is not. Relatively few know about the stakeholders that make up the Internet Society – a private non-profit founded in 1992 to develop voluntary standards for Internet users for the purpose of making network interconnection easier. Only a few more know about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – also a private non-profit that manages Internet domain names and the numeric address system.
While the U.S. government had a hand in the creation of the Internet Society and ICANN, these organizations are governed based on collective input from technicians, academics, innovators, governments and civil society. They and other related organizations are part of a decentralized, “multistakeholder” model that, while at times frustrating and chaotic, is widely seen as the nearly secret sauce that spices up the Internet’s flexibility, growth and catalytic power.
Of course, the Internet is linked to a global telecommunications infrastructure that has been regulated by national governments since the days of the telegraph. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been the legacy multilateral telecommunications oversight agency since 1865. Now a specialized agency of the UN, the ITU’s international telecommunications regulations (ITRs) were last revised in 1988 under an agreement that did not anticipate the Internet revolution.
As far back as 1996, the ITU has pursued some role in Internet governance, including the domain name system now managed by ICANN, but the U.S. government and private stakeholders have resisted each time. Governments including Russia and China see the upcoming WCIT in Dubai as an opportunity to change the ITRs and give the ITU governance authority in areas ranging from national Internet monitoring to cybersecurity. These proposals have generated everything from skepticism to outright fear of a multi-government coup of the Internet. Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, Vinton Cerf, called for a U.S.-led global coalition “to ensure openness” and preservation of the governance features that have “produced economic, scientific, educational, and societal benefits for three decades.”
If the Internet is a virtual Middle Earth, Cerf is the closest to being its Gandalf. In response to Cerf and other stakeholders, the ITU’s Director General, Dr Hamadoun Toure’, recently sought to downplay the significance of any proposals that would turn the ITU’s role in the Internet from a stakeholder to a regulator.
More important than the proposals themselves is a more fundamental question: Is the WCIT the proper forum for determining the ITU’s role in Internet governance? After all, only the governments attending the ITU get to vote on any proposed ITRs. Private stakeholders in the ICANN or the Internet Society would be relegated to advisors at best, and mere spectators at worst.
Giving governments the unilateral ability through the ITU to chip away at the overwhelmingly non-government, multistakeholder model is really what’s at issue in Dubai. The ITU was not created, nor is it currently designed, to field or be obligated to respond to non-government stakeholders. Simply put, the WCIT is not the proper forum to hand the ITU any new Internet governance role.
All of this brings us back to the bipartisan effort in Congress to defend the Internet’s current multistakeholder model. With preparatory meetings for Dubai well underway, unanimous congressional support for the multistakeholder model will help the U.S. government build the strong international coalition needed to resist unnecessary and unwise changes.
The timing could not be more appropriate. This year marks the 20th anniversary of both the Internet Society, but also of the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act (SATA). Passed with little fanfare in the last days of the 102nd Congress, SATA gave greater non-government access to what was once the ARPANET as part of a broader effort to advance research and education activities. Whether they realized it or not, Congress helped to open up an emerging “network of networks” – the Internet.
The Internet Society and SATA are milestones in the building, populating and governing of the Internet in a collaborative, collective way. Congress will soon have the chance to say with one voice that it’s a model worth preserving and advancing.