[Politech] Milton Mueller: U.S. unilateral control of ICANN backfired last week

From: Declan McCullagh (declan@private)
Date: Mon Oct 03 2005 - 12:52:44 PDT

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: US unilateral control of ICANN backfires in WSIS.
Date: Sat, 01 Oct 2005 15:50:26 -0400
From: Milton Mueller <Mueller@private>
To: <declan@private>
CC: <farber@private>, <dave@private>

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

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