Proposal For New UN Internet Governance Body Meets Resistance

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A proposal for a new United Nations body for internet governance oversight did not please the majority of delegates, be it from governments, private sector or civil society, at the sixth Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi last week. But while India and Brazil sought to defend their proposal, forum stakeholders were unable to move to reshape the annual event.

The proposal was made to the recent UN General Assembly by India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA). At the Nairobi IGF meeting India and Brazil took several steps back during heated discussions on the proposal. But the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), despite being seen by some as at a juncture, did not yet take the action to have more – or more diverse – governments in internet governance.

“Many governments do not attend the IGF, not because they don’t have the money, but because they do see how to make an impact through the IGF,” Romulo Neves, a diplomat from the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations (MRE), said after the plenary session on critical internet resources (CIR).

At the same time, many governments have also stayed away from the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). “They ask: can we vote? And they get told they can advise. But will the advice be taken? Maybe,” said Neves.

Fiona Alexander, assistant administrator at the US Department of Commerce National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) Office of International Affairs, said the United States had worked hard to ensure that the GAC’s voice was heard, for example in the ICANN process that led to a large number of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) being allowed on the internet.

Of the 80 government proposals on the gTLD application procedure, 70 were reflected in the final guidebook, Alexander said.

“To the extent governments want to be involved and should be involved, there are ways for them to be involved in the system,” she said during the CIR plenary. “The role of the GAC and the work that folks have done in the GAC this year has been really effective and we would encourage folks to participate in that process.”

Internationalising Oversight

From the US point of view this is “another way to actually internationalise the IANA [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority] functions contract,” Alexander said, “because the contractor, whoever the contractor might be, follows the rules that are developed by ICANN in this regard and the GAC is a part of ICANN and gets to have a say in this process.”

The IANA contract of the US, which will expire on 30 September 2012, has been at the heart of political controversies for years because it is the visible expression of the US oversight over the central root zone of the domain name system (DNS).

“The US should get out of it,” Fred Baker told Intellectual Property Watch. The Cisco engineer, who has acted in numerous roles for the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standardisation body, said he could speak only in a personal capacity. But in his opinion, “the US has nothing to win by staying in and nothing to lose by ceding it.”

On the question of who should take the helm and oversee IANA, Baker said “it could go to ICANN, because ICANN has a few constituents and one of them is the GAC.”

The US might want to burden the new IANA contract with a mandate to comply more closely with GAC advice, but Baker’s more radical proposal to get rid of unilateral oversight – which currently also includes a US Commerce Department check of changes in the root zone – would be welcomed by the governments now critical of the system.

Mapping Internet Governance

Tangible outcomes by the IGF like non-binding policy recommendations and a better grip of governments over ICANN has been a request made at several IGF meetings.

Brazilian diplomat Neves said, “Maybe capacity building, maybe more clear outcomes of the IGF, maybe more accountability of bodies like ICANN might do the job.”

Neves tried to make up lost ground with the technical community, which was outraged that the IBSA proposal also asked for oversight over standardisation bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Cisco engineer Patrik Faltstrom, chair of the ICANN Security and Stability Advisory Committee, said, “Is it really the case that the governments want to have an oversight over allocation of parameters for the TCP protocol? If that is the case they can call me and then you can do the job.”

Pete Resnick, area director in the IETF who works for Qualcomm (though as his Cisco colleges said he was not speaking for his company), questioned the complaint of Indian government official Tulika Pandey.

Pandey argued that it was difficult for developing countries to come and participate in the IETF. But Resnick said there were, for example, 54 Indian engineers authoring draft documents in the IETF at the moment.

The perceived access problems to IETF might give a more state-oriented standardisation institution like the UN International Telecommunication Union a head start, something IETF engineers are concerned about, especially because of the tensions about overlapping standards between the organisations.

Neves told Intellectual Property Watch that one way to shed some light on IETF work for governments might be to get an annual report during the IGF about what the IETF is working on.

His Indian counterpart Panday said the multitude of sites where internet policies are shaped is a challenge to developing countries. This was another reason for asking for one central place for internet governance oversight at the UN. “We’re lost in information,” she said.

Yet Raul Echeberria, CEO of LACNIC, the Latin American Internet Protocol address registry, issued a warning: “I think it’s the wrong approach to try to find a single solution for all the complexity of internet governance.”

Social scientist Jeanette Hofmann from the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin pointed to the need to come up with a way to make the vast amount of information already shared at the IGF usable. “The information produced by the IGF is highly underused,” she said.

From Content Blocking to Kill Switch

A lot of information was shared at the sixth IGF, held 27-30 September, which as usual made it difficult for participants to choose between half a dozen or more workshops at the same time. For instance, on invitation from ISOC, domain name system (DNS) technical experts discussed the unintended consequences of DNS blocking with law enforcement, at the same time as a workshop on dangers for freedom of expression held by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Some participants asked for better coordination for the workshops.

On DNS blocking, technical experts’ main arguments in opposition were the high cost of technology tweaking that would result in technical instability of the DNS. A small list of about 300 domains – the “worst of the worst” child pornography sites listed by Interpol, according to Agent Bjørn-Erik Ludvigsen – would still be manageable, even if not terribly effective, Kurt Lindqvist, CEO of DNS provider Netnod said.

Yet to start blocking content only results in more blocking requests for allegedly illegal sites, particularly a lot of copyright-infringing sites, Faltstrom said. Recent DNS seizures and re-directions of sites by the US Department of Justice Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency were justified with alleged copyright infringements, some not illegal in the country of origin.

Ludvigsen and Paul Brigner, senior vice president and chief technology policy officer at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), stressed that blocking is necessary.

Meanwhile, Constanze Buerger from the German Ministry of the Interior reported on an effort in Germany to test the effect of the alternative supported by the techies: take-down of illegal sites at the source. Before implementing a new blocking law, the German government ordered a test of taking down child-pornography websites last year and the take-down effort resulted in 99.4 percent of the content taken down, according to Buerger. Taking down instead of blocking is now the mantra in Germany.

Brigner also participated in an ISOC panel that looked into the fight about copyright, reiterating the content industry’s complaints with regard to the dangers of piracy for innovation and creativity. Malcolm Hutty from the London Internet Exchange said there should be recognition that intellectual property is not the same as real property. Stuart Hamilton from the International Federation of Libraries Association recommended a re-focus on the public interest.

The copyright discussion, as several observers perceived it, did not make a lot of ground in this year’s IGF, despite a presentation about several ongoing projects of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), such as copyright exemptions for blind people and an international music registry.

Copyright should be brought back to the IGF much more prominently, said Bertrand de la Chapelle, former French special envoy for the information society, because it concerns one of the main topics of the forum: access. Kurt Opsahl from EFF pointed to the trend in dealing with copyrights far from open forums, namely in behind-the-door negotiations on enforcement in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) – signed on 1 October by some of the participating governments.

Access to basic infrastructure, but also services like Twitter, was discussed in the IGF with regard to attempts to flip the internet kill-switch as attempted in Egypt. The country is working on a law for a kill-switch option, Amr Gharbeia, technology and freedoms program officer of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Intellectual Property Watch. The new Egyptian government does not want to kill the kill-switch, instead it wants to define “appropriate rules” for it.

Anja Kovacs from the Indian civil rights organisation IT for Change said in one of many workshops on human rights that the immediate reaction by activists to such ideas is always a categorical “No”. But it is important to talk about the reasoning of governments behind temporary cuts in connection, Kovacs said. Activists have to address issues like the use of social media in eruptions of racial violence and yet point to dangerous side effects of the cuts. “You also cut the access for people who want to know, can I go out and buy food? What is happening?” she said, adding that panic might be a consequence of the cut-offs.

Human Rights and the Next Host

The IGF arose from the 2003-2005 UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). In general, the rights of netizens and principles of good internet governance got prime attention throughout the four days of the Nairobi IGF. De la Chapelle said after the event, “we are just before the boiling point” at which the IGF might take some real steps toward a common framework on “rights and principles” on the internet.

Now after several regions and governments discussed and passed principles documents, the time appears ripe for stakeholders to find a joint framework (IPW, Information and Communications Technology, 27 September 2011).

The Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus in its closing statement said that civil society saw the presentation of the various principle documents at the IGF as a show of “commitment to developing policy through multi-stakeholder consultation.”

Speaking for the caucus, Jeremy Malcolm of Consumers International said, “If such a joint statement of principles could be produced during the current term of the IGF’s mandate, this would have far more weight and legitimacy than any of the individual statements could ever hope to possess on their own. It would also establish beyond question the IGF’s ability to contribute tangible and lasting outcomes for the guidance of policymakers.”

Civil society hopes to present their version of the internet policy and human rights on the net principles during the next meeting of the IGF.

Because of the focus on netzizens’ rights but also because of the worrying trends to be observed with regard to kill-switch approaches, the trend toward more filtering and blocking and the burdening of communications intermediaries with policing tasks and responsibility for illegal content, the Swedish government was clearly supportive of making human rights the main topic for the 2012 IGF, Johan Hallenborg from the Swedish Foreign Ministry said. The Swedish government has pushed for an expert session of the UN Human Rights Council on Freedom of Expression on the Internet, which will take place in March, Hallenborg told Intellectual Property Watch.

The human rights topic was timely also because Azerbaijan will be the host of the IGF 2012. The country, according to reports from Freedom House and Reporter without Borders, has a bad track record with regard to freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Two bloggers recently filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights for violations of a long list of their rights according to the European Convention on Human Rights by their governments.

In a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the IGF Secretariat, Freedom House requested assurance of the openness of IGF 2012 and that all participants will receive visas in time. In a press conference with representatives of the government of Azerbaijan, Deputy Minister of Communication and Information Technology Elmir Velizadeh tried to deflect concerns and said the IGF in Baku would be completely open. The selection of the main topic for 2012 will be interesting in that regard.

Monika Ermert may be reached at

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  1. […] India’s proposal comes in a somewhat confusing context of broader UN and regional efforts to address ongoing concerns of shortcomings in global internet governance. India and Brazil last month made a proposal for a new body, but put it before an existing body, the Internet Governance Forum, which perhaps not surprisingly reacted with caution (IPW, Information and Communications Technology, 3 October 2011). […]

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