Liberalising internet governance: ICANN and the role of governments


 “ICANN’s mission is stewardship and operational stability, not the defence of its existence or the preservation of the status quo.”

Stuart Lynn, ICANN President, Feb 2002

There has been much debate this month among internet circles about the future of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  Much of this was discussed at the NETmundial meeting in Sao Paolo, a suitable venue given Brazil’s desire to throw its weight behind reforming such bodies as ICANN.  Reforms are on the cards, but no one seems to be clear what exactly these will do to the way the internet is used. Sentiments of doom and gloom mix with utopian forecasts of freedom.

The NETmundial Multistakeolder Statement doesn’t reveal much, other than paying lip service to various principles (freedom of expression and association, privacy) and charting the roughest of roadmaps for future directions on Internet governance. Aspiration, be it in terms of transparency, accountability and collaboration, is key.

ICANN was incorporated in California on September 18, 1998.  Its creation was heralded as a loosening of the grip by US authorities on the operational side of the Internet, tasking a company to take over administrative duties.  ICANN plays a leading role in dealing with the distribution of IP addresses and the management of the Domain Name System (DNS).

As far back as February 2002, the organisation’s president, Stuart Lynn, saw the need for reforms of the body.  Reforms had to “replace ICANN’s unstable institutional foundations with an effective public-private ownership, rooted in the private sector but with the active backing and participation of national governments.”  Tensions of management are fundamental – keeping an eye on “high-level elements of the Internet’s naming and address allocation systems” while avoiding intrusions that would stifle “creativity and innovation”.  That tension has never been resolved.

On Mar 14, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), based in the US Department of Commerce, announced that its grip on ICANN would be loosened.  “The timing is right to start the transition process,” claimed Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, Lawrence E. Strickling.  “We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.”

John M. Eger, Director of the Creative Economy Initiative at San Diego State University, was enthusiastic.  “The US Government’s decision to end oversight of [ICANN] represents an opportunity for US leadership creating global ‘e-government’ systems to solve international law enforcement and terrorism problems, develop global education and environmental initiatives, and in turn, start using the Internet as a platform for advancing a new foreign-policy agenda.”

Eger’s overview is counter-intuitive – to shape internet governance, to seize the day, as it were, in such areas, one has to liberalise such bodies as ICANN and lessen the grip.  Technology can be better managed and directed if the big holders release the creation.  The Internet can become both a tool of open governance if the Obama administration embraces a “multistakeholder model”. “Letting go of ICANN gives the US momentum to more aggressively breathe life into the thousand[sic] of applications, which more truly internationalise its usefulness to nations, and to the world community.”

Eger’s observations are problematic on one direct level.  US leadership in such areas has tended towards bullying and cajoling negotiating partners in accepting a supposedly universal premise in implementing its own specific policies. Nothing demonstrates that more acutely than the current secret Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement talks.  Ostensibly geared to accelerate trade liberalisation, the leaked chapters of the document suggest that Washington is keen to impress strict, even draconian intellectual property provisions on potential signatories. What can’t be done through Congress can be smuggled in via international treaty.

The suggested relinquishing of control by the US Department of Commerce has not been deemed a wise gesture on the part of such individuals as Sweden’s minister for foreign affairs, Carl Bildt.  In relinquishing such control, internet governance would be altered, allowing other states to throw their hats in the ring.  Bildt is convinced that widening such involvement on ICANN is not “the way to go.”

Bildt’s concern is paternalistic.  Opening such doors will let in rather unsavoury characters keen on over-regulation.  “Net freedom is as fundamental as freedom of information and freedom of speech in our societies.”  Despite extolling such virtues, he has proven rather enthusiastic about dousing the flames over the NSA revelations of blanket surveillance, arguing that the Swedish FRA is, in fact, a defender of online freedoms.  Visions of governance tend to vary.

Bildt also chairs the Chatham House and Centre for International Governance and Innovation Inquiry, created to examine the Snowden legacy and state censorship of the Internet.  In a statement in January, the inquiry partners emphasised that “a number of authoritarian states are waging a campaign to exert greater state control over critical internet resources.”  They are far from the only ones.

The short of it is that governments are compulsive meddlers.  As attractive as the rhetoric of liberty and freedom might be, intrusive governance is still regarded as acceptable.  The Brazilian Minister of Communications, Paulo Bernardo, considers virtual crimes and cybersecurity as vital areas of government policy.  He did concede that “protocol standards and domain names registration can be perfectly controlled by the technical community.”

The language of Nikolai Nikiforov, Russian representative at NETmundial, proved more muscular.  “Being subject to international laws, states act as grantors of rights and freedoms for citizens, play a role in the economy, security and stability of internet infrastructure, and undertaken measures to prevent, detect and deter illegal actions in the global network.”

Governments, it seems, just can’t let go.

This article was posted on May 1, 2014 at

NETmundial: Disappointed expectations and delayed decisions

Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff spoke at the opening of NETmundial.

Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff spoke at the opening of NETmundial.

“In 2013, the revelations about the comprehensive mechanisms for spying and monitoring communications provoked outrage and disgust in broad sectors of the Brazilian and the world’s public opinion. Brazilian citizens, companies, embassies and even the President of the Republic had their communications intercepted. Such facts are unacceptable. They undermine the very nature of the Internet: open, pluralistic and free”.

With these words, President Dilma Rousseff opened the NETmundial – Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, held in São Paulo on April 23 and 24.

Organized by the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee ( and /1Net, the unprecedented gathering brought together 1,229 participants from 97 countries. The meeting included representatives of governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community and academics. Among those present were the Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, Wu Hongbo; the President of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), Fadi Chehade; the “father” of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, and the co-author of TCP/IP and vice-president of Google, Vint Cerfol. The creator of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, attended the event via Skype.

The words of the president of Brazil seemed to indicate the tone of the meeting: “This reunion responds to a global desire for change in the current situation, with the systematic strengthening of freedom of expression on the internet and the protection of basic human rights, such as the right to privacy”.

In the audience, activists wore masks with the face of Edward Snowden, whose leaks were a catalyst for NETmundial. They protested against the Article 15 of the Marco Civil–signed into law by Rousseff at the event’s opening ceremony–which orders the retention of users’ browsing data. Some demanded that Brazil offer asylum to Snowden.

The main objective of NETmundial was to begin to formulate a system of international internet governance that will come into effect in September 2015, when the United States steps away from the coordination of ICANN, which administers and manages the names and domains used on the internet.

NetMundial was born thanks U.S. spying that targeted the Brazilian government. Rousseff personally stitched together the event after her speech at the UN General Assembly last year that strongly condemned the NSA spying.

After the meeting, a statement of principles was approved. However, the document does not clearly state any principle governing the massive data espionage or violation of privacy. The term “neutrality” appears only in the list of topics to be discussed in the future. The mass surveillance is identified only as a discrediting factor of the net: “Mass and arbitrary surveillance weakens the trust and the confidence in the internet and in the ecosystem of internet governance”, says the document. The collection and use of personal data “should be subject to international human rights law”. And nothing more. Without incrimination, without any preventive or corrective measure, the question remained open. The postponement of the discussion about net neutrality was advocated by the U.S. private sector.

The final document raised much criticism from civil society, which had their expectations disappointed. With a weak text, the Charter of Principles was more like a set of corporate standards, with little affirmative language, full of marketing buzzwords. Its statements are soft. The governments’ voices, especially the U.S.’s, sounded much stronger. Civil society condemned the lack of explicit rules for the “net neutrality” – the term, by the way, was not even mentioned. Another criticized point was the inclusion of protection and copyright of intellectual property, which meets to the interests of lobbyists from business environment and is contrary to the recommendations of collaborative and free creation.

“The document ended up not reflecting the greatness of the debate that happened here. We missed the chance to produce a substantial document to the discussion of the internet governance”, said Laura Tresca, from the NGO Article 19. “The positive balance is in the process, which was interesting: we experienced the idea of the multistakeholder model in practice; but the final document was too weak.”

EFF published a text that defined the outcome of the meeting as “disappointing”.

The multistakeholder model was criticized by activists as “oppressive, determined by political and market interests”. People like Jérémie Zimmermann (La Quadrature Du Net, which defends the rights and freedom of citizens on the web) and Jacob Appelbaum (developer and security researcher) said that the principles of NetMundial were “empty of content and devoid of real power”. These activists argue that governments have an obligation to ensure the rights of users and that the internet is a common, free and geared to citizens’ good.

It would be very difficult to have unanimity with so many sectors present. Russia, Cuba and India disagreed with the Charter of Principles. Brazil’s minister of communications, Paulo Bernardo, missed a more forceful condemnation of espionage. “For obvious reasons, the United States was uncomfortable with it”, said Bernardo. He recognized that the document is not perfect, but evaluates that it means a victory for the future of governance. The idea now is to enhance the text in other debates, such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), that will be held next September in Turkey and in Brazil in 2015.

NETmundial was a historic step putting Brazil in the frontline for internet use in the world, even with the disagreements and a questionable model. Nevertheless, it lacked the courage to allow the voice of the people to sound louder than economic interests. To push the most important issues into the future for further discussions was a mistake – both strategic and purposeful. In this sense, they have bitten more than they could chew.

A previous version of this article referred to Wu Hungbo as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. His correct title is Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. This has now been corrected. 

This article was published on April 30, 2014 at

As internet matures India faces a choice on governance


For many years, the Indian public in particular, had very little interest in who controlled the internet and decisions taken at a structural level that shaped its future.

The press carried little tidbits about the World Summit on Information Society; a pair of United Nations-sponsored conferences about information, communication and, with an aim to bridge the so-called global digital divide separating rich countries from poor countries by spreading access to the internet in the developing world, the UN body, International Telecommunications Union (ITU); which coordinates the shared global use of the radio spectrum, promotes international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, works to improve telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world, and assists in the development and coordination of worldwide technical standards, and Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which coordinates the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, which are key technical services critical to the continued operations of the Internet’s underlying address book, the Domain Name System (DNS) and also UN Commission of Science and Technology Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation, where governments come together to discuss issues like internet governance.

What was commonly known followed a similar trajectory: America invented the internet, it is a global commons, and it works well.

Over the last few years, however, as the Indian experience with the internet has matured, questions of governance, both internally and externally have started making headlines. Allegations of mass surveillance have hogged all headlines. Another factor cannot be missed: the Indian digital economy is growing rapidly, and while internet governance is nowhere close to being an election issue in India, domestically, access, freedom of expression, cyber crime and cyber security are growing concerns. There also the reality that as India’s population gets increasingly connected, it will host one of the biggest online demographies in the world. Therefore, India’s views and actions in terms of how the internet should grow and be governed is crucial to the future of the internet itself.

In October 2011, the Indian government proposed that a UN Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) be formed, so that governments can debate and deliberate on vital issues such as intellectual property enforcement, privacy and data protection, online filtering and censorship and network neutrality. Those opposed to the idea have warned that the “open” nature of the internet will be threatened by governments who favor a controlled and censored form of the internet. Also the proposed structure of the UN-CIRP seemed to be the very anti-thesis of a dynamic internet; it involved setting up a 50 member committee that only met for two weeks in the year. Those opposed to this bureaucratic suggestion, instead, favour a multi-stakeholder transnational governance mechanism, which gives all stakeholders of the internet a place on the table; including governments, businesses and civil society members.

The last few months of 2013 were very active internationally, on questions of internet governance. Three big international events made headlines, and India’s role in them is especially telling. The first was the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Indonesia in November. This event brought together all members of civil society on a common platform to deliberate on the rules of global governance, but in effect did not have any binding powers. Given that it was held in the wake of the Snowden revelations of NSA surveillance, the conversations centered around the need to ensure better protection of all citizens in the online environment and to reach a proper balance between actions driven by national security and respect for freedom of expression, privacy and human rights. While in the 2012 IGF, India’s Minister for Communication Technology had been present, in 2013, was “extremely small” according to Dr Anja Kovaks who participated there. She added that, “many developing countries look up to India’s engagement with internet-governance forums to ensure that the concerns of the developing world are not ignored during policy-making.”

In December, 2013, the UN Commission of Science and Technology Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation released a statement which also carried India’s proposal that, “The UN General Assembly could embark on creation of a multilateral body for formulation of international Internet-related public policies. The proposed body should include all stakeholders and relevant inter-governmental and international organisations in advisory capacity within their respective roles as identified in Tunis agenda and WGIG report. Such body should also develop globally applicable principles on public policy issues associated with the coordination and management of critical Internet resources.” Earlier this year, a note written by India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), leaked to an Indian newspaper in March 2014, warns of the DNS system under US control, and goes on to say that “India’s position is aligned with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran who also want governments to collectively drive internet management worldwide…” It adds that, “trust in the internet has declined and India’s objective in the Geneva session was to ensure its concerns are accommodated in whatever international regime of Internet governance finally emerges.”

However, in the backdrop of continuing internet governance discussions, came the announcement by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff that in the light of revelations of global mass surveillance by the US, Brazil was going to host an internet governance conference — NETmundial — in April 2014. This announcement was made after consulting the head of ICANN, Fadi Chehde. In contrast, the Indian reaction to these revelations seemed rather muted, perhaps because India too is building a mass surveillance regime within its national borders. It is also believed that Brazil asked India take a bigger role with them, however, Indian foreign ministry officials have stated off-the-record that details about the conference were not easy to come by from Brazil. Either way, the conference dates coincide with Indian general elections of 2014 and the formation of a new national government, and will most likely see a small Indian delegation.

A month before the Brazil conference comes the announcement by the United States government that the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration will end its formal relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in late 2015, with ICANN developing a new global governance model. It has been made clear by the ICANN President and CEO Fadi Chehadé that the transition out of NTIA was “not a final decision to surrender control of the internet” or about announcing a new law or policy. “The [U.S.] government also set clear boundaries for that discussion, including a very clear statement that it will not release control of these functions to any government-led or inter-governmental organization solution.” Former CEO of ICANN Rod Beckstorm gave an interview in which he speculated that the US government made the announcement now “because they face the serious risk of losing even more at the upcoming NETmundial conference on internet governance in Brazil. This event could potentially lead to greater United Nations control over the internet and open the door to increased influence by countries opposed to a free and open internet.”

This, of course, is a hint that the US government would rather restructure ICANN and keep the multistakeholder approach towards internet governance open, rather than let some governments steer the course towards a government led body governing the internet.

In a reaction to the announcement, Member of Parliament and vocal critic of the Indian government’s position, Rajeev Chandrasekhar told Index that “India needs to think ahead, because its position on the governance of the internet and its inexplicable alliance with China, Saudi Arabia on this issue has been based on the so called US control of the net. First, the Ministry of External Affairs’s entrenched position of a UN body needs to be withdrawn forthwith. I have substantiated its problems at multiple levels. India has lost its leadership status to Brazil in the internet governance space, thanks to government’s position, and reflects complete failure of thought by Indian leadership.” Looking towards the future, Chandrasekhar added that, “the new government needs to hold national, open public consultation on the issue. Parliament needs to be involved. Governments want to regulate; industry invests, builds infrastructure and drives innovation; and civil society/academia protects civil ideals and users’ interest, including privacy, free speech and human rights. A free, open, safe, secure and truly global internet can only be managed through a multi-stakeholder mechanism with specific areas of intergovernmental cooperation, such as cyber terrorism, international jurisdiction.”

Other civil society voices, too, have called for the Indian government to rise to this new challenge. Security expert, Dr. Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express that, “Delhi has a long record of posturing at multilateral forums and shooting itself in the foot when it comes to national interest. Believe it or not, in the 1970s, India opposed, at the UN, the direct broadcast satellite technology in the name of protecting its territorial sovereignty. With an IT sector that is deeply integrated with the global economy and contributing nearly 8 per cent of India’s GDP as well as the world’s third-largest group of internet users, India does not have the luxury of quixotic pursuits. Delhi’s negotiating position must be rooted firmly in India’s economic interests. Issue-based coalitions — with countries, companies and civil society groups — are critical for ensuring the best possible outcomes.”

Given the Indian government’s taste for pushing unilateral mechanisms for governing the internet at an international level, and Indian civil society, which for the most part seems to vocally support a multistakeholder approach, the Indian elections might bring about a new opportunity for both sides to find clarity. Some argue that multistakeholder models give an equal seat to governments like the US, but also to their corporate giants such as Google, Facebook, AT&T, which might help them secure a majority over crucial issues and therefore an international unilateral model might be beneficial for smaller countries. Alternatively, a government-led model, as India suggests, pre-supposes a consultative mechanism within countries so that the will of the people can be reflected. One thing is clear, with its technology boom, population, and growing dependence on the internet for economic prosperity, governance and free expression, the country can no longer afford to not assume a leadership role in this area, while at the same time sticking to its core democratic principles. It needs to rise to its leadership potential and reflect the will of its people.

This article was published on 24 March 2014 at