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Do we really want Iran or China in charge of the Net?

(C) 2005 Mehmet G.Emin

The term Internet governance is a bit of a misnomer. In its brief history, governance of the Internet has been minimal, and led by a loose knit group of non-governmental organizations, governments and the private sector - namely, the people and the organizations that have a vested interest in ensuring the Internet is successful.

At the centre of the Internet governance world is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which has been coordinating and governing the Internet since 1999 (in Internet years, that's forever).

It's my opinion, and that of many others, that it is exactly this bottoms-up, light-handed approach to governance that has allowed the Internet to be the incredible economic and democratizing force it has become. "The Internet," in the words of ICANN president Rod Beckstrom, "has the power to transform human experience."

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The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency, recently wrapped up a three-week long Plenipotentiary Conference, the results of which show that numerous players at the event are intent on removing ICANN from the Internet governance landscape.

In the first week of the PP10, Russia, supported by a group of former Soviet nations, put forward a proposal in Guadalajara that would have seen ICANN's Government Advisory Committee (which Canada currently chairs) replaced by a UN-appointed body. In the second week, discussions focused on fixing what players like Syria, Russia and China see as a broken system (as defined by their own governments' ideologies).

Currently, the balance of power over the Internet resides with the people and organizations that have a vested interest in ensuring its success. Changing this, as proposed by Russia, is ill advised in my view. It would inevitably lead to a power play by governments that do not share our society's commitment to an open economy, free speech, and human rights. Even earlier this month, it became very apparent how difficult it can be for Canada to be in a position of influence as exemplified by our failed bids for a seat on the UN Security Council and the ITU. On the flipside, Canada is in a position of strength at ICANN, which is appropriate given our long-term commitment to the development of the Internet.

What would the Internet be like if a multi-lateral body, like the UN or ITU, were put in charge? As history shows, it is often not the issues of the day that influence the discussions at these institutions. Rather, organizations like the ITU are hierarchical, top-down bodies that exist in a hyper-political environment. As such, they are susceptible to political intervention, influence and trade-offs.

The fact is the majority of the UN's (and the ITU's) membership do not fall into the democratic, free economy nation category. Many of these regimes have not received a mandate from an electorate that they then implement over time. Decisions are many times made at the whim of autocrats or theocrats. Is that how we want the Internet to be governed?

I do not believe it is in the best interest of the Internet to have Iran, who shut down the Internet within their borders to quell dissent, or China, who pushed Google to censor search results within its borders, in the driver's seat. Nor do I think that nations like United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who have been bullying RIM to loosen up the security on Blackberry devices so that they can monitor their citizens, should be in charge.

In the end, the ITU plenary grudgingly agreed to some watered down resolutions, one of which officially 'recognizes' that there are other players in the Internet world (an interesting notion, given that the ITU currently has very little to do with the Internet).

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In a world where recognizing that you're not the only game in town is seen as a major step forward, I shudder to think how open and inclusive they would be if the ITU were actually in charge.

I think that the current multi-stakeholder, bottom-up approach to governing the Internet - an approach that gives the technicians and operators as much power as the policy-makers - is not a broken one. It has, in fact, been the driver of innovation and creativity that has made the Internet such a force for progress.

Let's make sure it remains that way. The Internet survived this round of attacks, but there is plenty of reason to believe a second attack might be more damaging.

Byron Holland is the President and CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority.

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