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Milton Mueller: U.S. unilateral control of ICANN backfired last week
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: US unilateral control of ICANN backfires in WSIS.
Date: Sat, 01 Oct 2005 15:50:26 -0400
From: Milton Mueller <Mueller@syr.edu>
CC: <email@example.com>, <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The results of WSIS Prepcom 3 demonstrate the failure of US
unilateralism. The US is well on its way toward being isolated, having
lost the support of the European Union in its attempt to keep ICANN and
Internet governance under its own control. Now its rigid, defensive
policy has put the Internet itself at risk.
The politics in Geneva were driven by an alliance between the European
Union, states critical of ICANN such as Brazil, and authoritarian states
such as China, Iran and Pakistan. All agreed to create an
"Inter-Governmental Council for global public policy and oversight of
Internet governance." Unlike ICANN, this Council would exclude civil
society and the private sector from participating in policy making. It
would set up a top-down, regulatory relationship between a governmental
Council and the people who actually produce and use the Internet. As we
have learned from the past two years, most governments have little
interest in solving the real problems of the Internet. They prefer to
play political games: asserting "national sovereignty" over a global
communication medium, censoring inconvenient sources of information,
thinking of ways to protect national telecom monopolies from
internet-driven competition, grabbing control of country names in the
domain name space, excluding Taiwan, and so on.
The US government and ICANN have resisted inter-governmental oversight,
contending that intergovernmental supervision can be politically
unstable and dangerous to the Internet's autonomy. But the US still
seems not to understand how its own insistence on unilateral oversight
creates the same instability.
When the US criticizes governmental control, the obvious retort is that
there is already one government with extensive oversight powers over
ICANN and the core technical functions of the Internet: the USA itself.
The US is completely at a loss to explain why it should have that
control, to the exclusion of all other governments. Its "but we are
different" argument might find a receptive audience among US business
interests, but it doesn't fly anywhere else. It's not enough for the US
to say, "we are not an authoritarian state like China." For one thing,
the US seems an increasingly authoritarian state to many in Europe, what
with the Patriot Act and other recent measures forcing everyone entering
the country to undergo biometric surveillance. But even if that is not
an entirely fair perception, the US cannot claim that it will not use
its unilateral power over ICANN * for it already has. In August, the
Bush administration responded to political pressure from conservative
religious groups by asking ICANN to reconsider the creation of a top
level domain for adult content. It was inevitable and entirely
predictable that other governments, including erstwhile allies such as
the European Union, would want their own piece of that power.
The US could have, and should have, privatized and internationalized its
oversight authority when it had a chance. It could have, and should
have, insisted on robust, democratic accountability mechanisms for ICANN
that would have pre-empted demands for centralized, old-style
inter-governmental oversight. It could have, and should have, insisted
on negotiating binding international agreements protecting the Internet
from arbitrary governmental interference and regulation. But it didn't.
And now the debate has devolved to a choice between "US control" versus
"UN control." If that is the choice, it is only a matter of time before
collective international control wins.
What seems to have been lost in the shuffle is the idea of distributed,
cooperative control that involves individuals, technical and academic
groups, Internet businesses and limited, lawful interactions with
governments. The idea that nation-states should not have the ability to
arbitrarily intervene in the Internet's operation whenever they feel
like it, but should be bound by clear, negotiated constitutional
principles, has been crowded out of the debate.
As the WSIS debate spills into the US media, do not permit the US
government to wrap itself up in the flag of Internet freedom. It is
reaping what it sowed. Its own special, extra-legal authority over ICANN
and the Internet has been the lightning rod for politicization. Its
insistence on retaining control, and the spillover from its
unilateralism in other areas such as the war in Iraq, has done
tremendous damage to its credibility. Now the Internet is paying the price.
Dr. Milton Mueller
Syracuse University School of Information Studies
Posted by Declan McCullagh on Oct 03, 2005
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