Bonsai This Is Not: ICANN and the Internet Governance Landscape

Bonsai This Is Not: ICANN and the Internet Governance Landscape

Internet Governance may be one of the most understated, under-recognized issues today, relative to its impact on Internet-using society as we know it. And as far as landscapes go, the current one sits slightly closer to that of an asteroid belt than a Japanese rock garden.

At least, that's how ICANN may feel in the wake of last week's “ICANN and the Internet Governance Landscape” panel at the ICANN 45 meeting in Toronto.

First, some background: ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, an international non-profit responsible for the world's top level domains (TLDs). A TLD is the suffix of a website domain name: it's the “.com” in, or the “.ca” in, or the saga-inducing “.xxx” in adult websites. For a more complete overview of ICANN and ICANN 45, see this post.

Returning to the topic at hand: if the entire Internet were a single city, Internet Governance would be the equivalent of urban planning and traffic policy. There are annual municipal council meetings in the form of the UN's Internet Governance Forum (IGF), whose seventh annual meeting takes place this November in Baku, Azerbaijan. The panel in Toronto thus offered stakeholders a crucial opportunity to share regional developments, raise key issues, and exchange views in preparation for the IGF and additional conferences (see: WCIT,WTSAWTPF). Given discursive sheers, a topiarist might prune four themes from the discussion that unfolded: regional IGFs, the role of governments, multi-stakeholder models and “Enhanced Cooperation”, and the role of international telecommunications regulations.

To begin, lest anyone think this is a case of one IGF to rule them all, the panel exchanged updates with representatives from the first Arab IGF, first African IGF, first Indian IGF,Australian IGFAsia Pacific IGFUnited Kingdom IGFCanadian IGFBrazil IGF, and Latin America and Caribbean IGF. Issues included: need for infrastructure enhancement, legislative facilitation of internet and communications technology, telecommunications tasks, bottom-up community initiatives, public awareness and outreachdata security and trust on the Internet, IP address profilingcybercrime initiatives, and a desire to see concrete results from IGFs. Speakers reiterated the need to ensure ideas and concerns flow from national, to regional, to international levels, in a way that results in understanding, good decisions, and infomed policies.

Such decisions and policies often come from government, so it's no surprise that government involvement formed another theme. Members of ICANN's Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO), which specifically steward country code TLDs (ccTLDs)—think CIRA and .ca—occupy a unique role in this context. They have close working relationships with their respective governments but must remain sensitive to the surrounding policy environment. According to CIRA president and CEO Byron Holland, this sometimes sparks tension with their on-the-ground work overseeing the domain name system and operating “the blinking lights and routers”.

While according to ICANN veteran Adam Peake, said blinking lights and routers are filling increasing space in high-level government portfolios, a fine line typically exists between participation and control when it comes to government. ICANN's consistently lauded multi-stakeholder model does not change this. With the Internet Governance landscape undergoinggTLD upheaval and other tremors, however, all involved have placed particular emphasis on hearing equally from all voices, all sectors, and all levels of civil society, while mitigating excess political influence. Still, as some have pointed out, such an endeavour is easier said than done.

This brings us to the nebulous concept of “Enhanced Cooperation”. The “creative ambiguity”-infused term has engendered various interpretations since its 2005 Tunis debut, from minimally impoving status quo to striking a special task force. The panel made clear, however, the undesirability of a single comprehensive body for Internet Governance, which could undermine the multi-stakeholder philosophy and prove too close to government-like or intergovernmental Internet regulation for comfort.

This is why many have expressed misgivings with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and its upcoming World Conference on International Communications (WCIT) in Dubai. Founded as the International Telegraph Union in 1865, the ITU has since evolved with the times and appears intent on continuing the trend. To what extent is a question that will be answered at WCIT, which will see the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) updated for the first time since 1988.

While panellists appeared wary of potential ITU encroachment upon Internet processes, AT&T's Jeff Brueggeman reminded participants that ITRs nevertheless serve an important purpose, and that what circumstances ultimately necessitate is that ICANN maintain a clear position of distinguishing between internet governance, broader internet policy, and traditional telecommunications regulation. Still, worries abound that the ITU will attempt to “take over the Internet”. The ITU refuted this notion; others suggest fears are overstated if nothypocritical, and problematic if one looks at it from a distribution-of-power perspective.

At the end of the day, a reminder by ICANN board member Bertrand de La Chappelle would seem to be an appropriate conclusion, in light of yet more upcoming international meetings: ICANN has developed Internet Governance on a basis of building tangible structures and processes to solve specific problems, and stakeholders should keep this in mind during the Internet Governance equivalent of “theological discussions”. After all, no matter how much planning goes into a good hedge maze, there always remains the possibility of unexpected dead ends revealed on the ground.

Cynthia Khoo is a JD Candidate at the University of Victoria.