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Ronald J. Deibert, Nart Villeneuve and Greg Walton discovered the spying operation they dubbed GhostNet. They are seen at the Munk Centre on March 29 2009. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ronald J. Deibert, Nart Villeneuve and Greg Walton discovered the spying operation they dubbed GhostNet. They are seen at the Munk Centre on March 29 2009. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Internet needs peacekeepers. Is Canada ready? Add to ...

Mr Touré should know. The ITU is at the heart of a growing push to fundamentally change the way the Internet is governed -- a push that would not only affect the influence countries such as Canada are able to exert in the digital world, but also the way every person on Earth experiences the Internet.

Today, the Internet is governed, in large part, by a private corporation. It's called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a California-based non-profit charged with handling tasks such as approving domain suffixes such as .ca for Canada, as well as myriad other technical and policy issues.

However, the next billion people to hop on the Internet will be from places such as Nairobi and Mumbai, not California. And increasingly, governments are pushing to replace ICANN -- a group historically aligned with the U.S. Department of Commerce -- with a UN-style body in which multiple nations have a direct say in how the Internet is run. A clear front-runner has emerged to serve that purpose: the ITU. [ Read the op-ed by Canadian Internet Registration Authority President and CEO Byron Holland on the subject]

At the ITU's most recent conference, which wrapped up last month in Guadalajara, Mexico, Russian delegates proposed a motion that would see ICANN's government advisory council replaced with a UN-approved body. The move was seen as a first attempt to shift control away from ICANN and toward emerging powers such as Russia and China.

On the surface, the optics seem to favour the ITU over ICANN -- that a multilateral, UN-style body, instead of a US-based private corporation, run the world's most important communications network. However the potential for such a shift has caused ripples of concern across the global digital community.

"Iran, Syria, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates -- that's who will be starting to drive the bus on [Internet policy]" says Byron Holland, President & CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the group responsible for managing Canadian domain names. "Most Canadians would be very concerned about those countries shaping and directing the Internet."

Mr. Holland's implication is clear: should countries such as the UAE - which recently threatened to block Research In Motion's BlackBerrys from the country unless the Canadian firm gave local authorities more ability to monitor communication on the devices - have a greater say in how the Internet is run, Canadians and other users who have become accustomed to a free and open Internet may see their Web experience diminish, as more authoritarian nations attempt to expand government's control over the communication medium.

In effect, the balance of Web freedom will shift closer to the sensibilities of countries such as Iran, where censorship and eavesdropping is widespread, and away from countries such as Canada, Mr. Holland contends.

At the heart of the dispute is a pivotal question: should the countries responsible for the majority of the Internet's new citizens have a greater say in how the Internet is run?

Perhaps no nation is better positioned to play a vital role in resolving the issue than Canada. But until recently, Ottawa has largely viewed the Internet through the prism of business, rather than as a security or wider policy issue.

"Canada's response had been shaped by the fact that, until the very recent past, Canada's participation in global Internet governance was through Industry Canada ... which is fairly narrow in terms of focus," says Rafal Rohozinski, president of the SecDev Group. "You didn't have [Foreign Affairs]looking at the Internet commons as a policy issue, you didn't see and real kind of coordinated effort. I think that's starting to change."

For Canada, recreating its reputation as a geopolitical broker in the digital realm is far more than an altruistic policy goal. There are serious issues at stake, says Mr. Holland, such as freedom of information and limits on government's ability to collect information. Under the current system, Canada already has some say. For example, Heather Dryden, a Canadian representative, currently chairs ICANN's governmental advisory committee.

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