5th World Telecom Policy Forum – stepping stone to changes in the internet governance arena?

Update (16 May 2013): Opinions one to four were endorsed without any changes, five and six with almost no changes. A seventh opinion proposed by Brazil on the role of governments in internet governance was discussed but not agreed upon consensually.

818 official participants – government and sector members – 8 “guests” and some 50 members of the public are currently discussing internet related policy issues at the 5th World Telecom Policy Conference in Geneva (WTPF). While only non-binding “opinions” on “internet related public policy issues” are on the agenda, the conference is seen as a stepping stone towards potential changes in the future mandate of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the role of governments in internet governance. During the  World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) these very issues caused a split in the membership of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) over the level of state control necessary. Can the breach be closed this week in Geneva or will it widen even more?

The WTPF has a big advantage in bringing opposing views together: it is of a non-binding nature. The six prepared opinions it intends to pass, are the following:

They are mere commitments and not treaty obligations. With the acknowledgment of the importance of IXPs, especially in the developing countries (the whole of Africa has only 26 exchange points at this point), the need for much more broadband connectivity and high-level support for the transition to the new internet protocol IPv6, the parties should be able to find a lot of common ground.

Several non-governmental organisations have applauded the focus on supporting the infrastructure of the network and commitments may be easy to agree on by many stakeholders on these issues. This should put the participants into a conciliable state of mind for the more controversial negotiations that remain below the surface, headmost the controversies around the role of the ITU. ITU Secretary General, Hamadoun Touré, underlined during the opening press conference of the 5th WTPF that he expected consensus results would be possible in the non-treaty “low pressure environment”.

Controversies over the multi stakeholder model and ITU role continue

Reading through the 50 pages report of the ITU Secretary General, it becomes clear that the ITU has tapped into advice from the experts at the organisations for internet naming and numbering management. Issues like IPv4 address transfers, community discussions over secure routing or domain name system security extensions (DNSSEC) are listed as “problem issues”. At the same time, the ITU Secretary General clearly invites member states to take their concerns and input on these issues, not only to the relevant organisations, but also to the ITU. Some observers see this as a friendly form of a hostile take-over.

After the report was released, calls from both sides about a possible foul play only grew. US Congress pushed for a tiny piece of legislation to “affirm the policy of the United States regarding internet governance“ positioning itself against "increased government control over the internet“ and an undermining of the “current multi stakeholder model”, the joint responsibility of all stakeholders for the development and management of the internet.

On the other side, former “ITU hawk“ Richard Hill, now a consultant and a member of the Informal Expert Group that prepared the draft opinions, twists the knife in the inconsistent position of the “hands-off-the-internet“-camp, namely the US government keeping some of its privileges in oversight over internet resources like the central root zone of the Domain Name System (DNS).

US academic Milton Mueller, professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, added some more fuel to the fire by declaring that the debate about the cherished multi stakeholder model was flawed and devoid of meaning as long as it would not strive to limit “the power of nation-states to interfere unduly with the use and operation of the internet, and empowers individuals worldwide to govern themselves.“

Governments' and ITU's future role

Defining what multi stakeholder means and what the roles of governments are in it, can be expected to be the most controversial point over the course of this week. The Russian Federation, Brazil and several civil society members have contributed statements to this issue. Russia for example reiterated its proposals for a much stronger national grip on internet governance.

The Russian attempt to introduce “national segments of the internet“, where the respective governments could have their say on global resources, had been one of the most extremist during the failed WCIT-12 conference and provided for a lot of discussions there.

Related to this is the future mandate of the ITU in internet governance, a topic that will become key when the Plenipotentiary Conference (PP14) will decide on the future tasks and budget of the ITU for the coming four years. For many observers, the non-binding WTPF's relevance this week mainly is this: how member states position themselves in that regard.

Much more work has to be done with regard to opening ITU processes, civil society coalition Best Bits wrote in a short statement published on the eve of the WTPF. “It looks a lot like parties are eager to have an agreement here,” Wolfgang Kleinwächter, professor for International Communication Policy at the University of Aarhus and another member of the WTPF Informal Expert Group wrote after the opening session in Geneva. “We have to watch closely, for sure, but so far it does not look that bad.“

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