Internet Governance In 2012: Reaching New Heights Or Hitting A Wall

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There will be more than 50 important meetings talking internet in 2012, and activists and government alike have started calling for streamlining or better cooperation and focus. Yet what might make 2012 a very notable year with regard to the politics of the net is not these meetings, but the rising storms blowing over the net regarding day to day internet politics. The preliminary stop of the un-beloved SOPA/PIPA legislation in the United States and the unexpected hesitation of Europe to sign the controversial ACTA agreement gave a first taste of a hot year in internet governance.

The year started with what for many now should be considered a done deal: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) started accepting new generic top-level domain applications on 12 January and announced that with the application process ending on 12 April has started smoothly. All machines were purring like a cat with 100 registrations in the so-called TLD registration system (TRS) noted in the first month.

The opening up of the name space results from six years of back and forth among ICANN stakeholders. For some, while not perfect, it is exemplary of what privately led – though still government steered – internet governance processes should look like. Even the US Commerce Department National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) sees it this way.

At least this was what the NTIA said when the process was once again questioned by the trademark industry. Yet how important for the net are the new TLDs? With regard to innovative leap forwards, the new TLD process looks rather heavy weight with a complex process. “Would you have tried to establish the World Wide Web like this, we would have never got it,” more than one expert said.

ICANN’s further handling and the “success” or smooth and non-fatal implementation of the new names will be a benchmark for a first real, large multi-stakeholder project, government experts from a European regulatory authority told Intellectual Property Watch. Problems could feed into yet another campaign to slow down or even block a second new TLD application round. There’s much the new ICANN CEO expected to be announced in late spring or early summer will have to tackle to avoid a new challenging of the self-regulatory model more generally.

And the sore old question about the contract governing the central root zone, the IANA [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority], is still pending – with it the question how much influence the US government holds over domain land.

New IP addresses and Renewed Discussion on Data Protection

Another project of the old-school internet architecture self-regulators concerns IP addresses and the move to a new, larger global internet protocol. 2012 will be the year in which at least the European and Middle East regional internet registry (RIPE) will join their Asian-Pacific colleagues (APNIC) in the announcement: “No more IPv4 addresses.” APNIC handed out the last IPv4 address already last year. The other three RIRs still got some left, yet there is no way around IPv6, according to Axel Pawlik, CEO from RIPE NCC: “We will hand out the last IPv4 addresses soon.”

From then on, people only get the longer IPv6 addresses, but plenty of them. So far the longer addresses have not spurred as much discussion as the much more visible and debated names. But IPv6 has been on the agenda with regard to how these numbers, which are much more essential for internet traffic, should be governed, and has come up after some silence again in the thick stack of proposals for the review of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR, see below).

With IPv6, there is a rush in the technical community to finish standardisation of bits and pieces around the new protocol and there has also been a rather hidden fight about control and privacy. Chinese researchers are seeking to win over their engineer colleges at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for example to agree with better traceability of IPv6 addresses – potentially IPv6 would allow real IDs for internet users around the world. At the same time international data protection officials from some countries specifically have passed a resolution to make IPv6 more data protection friendly (the next edition of the annual gathering of the data protection and privacy officers is in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in autumn 2012).

Data Protection and New Borders on the Net

Even engineers in the IETF found important the privacy topic so that a new Privacy Directorate was established to check future standards with regard to what their effects for private data might be. This is in the context of the stipulation of giving “privacy for design” often reiterated by politicians – who themselves are rather clueless with regard to implementation of the principle – a more practical face.

The data protection issue will be a huge topic in the internet governance discussions, said Lee Hibbard of the Council of Europe. The CoE is reviewing its Convention 108 [pdf] and according to Hibbard there is an intention to promote the data protection instrument now in the same way internationally as the CoE Cybercrime Convention has been for some time.

At the same time – watched with interest from the CoE reviewers who want to avoid a schism – the European Union Data Protection Directive is under review, too.

European Union Vice President Viviane Reding in her review proposal touched a core topic of internet governance: the seemingly unsolvable riddle of jurisdictions in a borderless virtual world. Reding made the tough point that companies of non-EU provenance have to adhere to these rules when they want to offer their services to EU citizens. Certainly many people including some concerned US authorities are looking to Europe’s EU data protection review. According to European non-governmental observers, the US even tried to lobby in Brussels to prevent “the worst”. However, the US lobbyists might not receive the same amount of public support as those lobbying against PIPA and SOPA, another attempt to impose one’s own rules outside one’s own jurisdiction. [Note: SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act and PIPA the Protect IP Act, both US proposed legislation sidelined after popular protect over the potential restrictiveness.]

“The tension between the supposedly global nature of the internet and the fact that the global internet is increasingly fragmented – or to use a popular term balkanized – is one of the most important emerging topics in internet governance,” said Anja Kovacs from IT for Change, an Indian NGO. For India, Kovacs is afraid of the trend to re-nationalise the net and erect borders on the net, which has been in force in one big internet territory for some time – China.

In India, Kovacs sees a battle in which the government is trying to get big intermediaries to ensure that no content that conflicts with local laws even reaches the internet or take it down as soon as it appears – something recently said to be not in line with European fundamental rights by the European Court of Justice. “The problem” said Kovacs, “is that the range of restrictions on freedom of speech that are acceptable in Indian law are far wider than what would be thought of as acceptable in most Western democracies.”

She was quite sure that India was not the only country wanting to curtail the empowering potential of the net, “and if the largest democracy in the world will get away with all this, many outer countries are sure to take that as a justification.” And there are technical ideas on how to erect new borders on the net, too, by forcing intermediaries to have servers within the country.

“Only if we start to recognise that the global nature of the internet is increasingly becoming a myth and start to really address this tension between the global and the local, even in the democratic world, is there a chance that the empowering qualities of this network can be retained,” she said.

Human Rights as Minimum Standard and the Badly Nurtured IGF

A tide that some hope rises in 2012 is a solid marriage of internet governance with human rights. While the development of new worldwide standards for border-less network territories could prove to take a long, long time, basic rights like freedom of expression, freedom of information and privacy have long been enshrined in human rights, argues Frank La Rue, special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the UN.

La Rue’s widely recognised 2011 report on freedom of expression on the internet has added to the tide, despite a cautious warning recently by Vint Cerf, internet “father”, now Google “internet evangelist”, that the internet in itself is only a tool and not a right per se. Activists like Joy Liddicoat of the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) were quick to answer in acknowledging that certainly it was a perfect tool to enable the exercise of rights – if rightly shaped.

Activists anticipated the first discussion of internet freedoms in the UN Human Rights Council starting last week in Geneva (IPW, United Nations, 29 February 2012). Sweden’s government has been lobbying for this together with asking for human rights to be made the main topic of the next edition of the UN Internet Governance Forum that will take place later this year in Baku, Azerbaijan, a country that has a bad track record, according to human rights organisations.

How much can be expected from the Human Rights Council and the IGF Baku discussions with regard to heightened respect for existing standards remains an open question given what Narelle Clark, president of the Internet Society in Australia sees as the year’s number one topic in internet governance: “Ongoing attempts by governments, well-meaning and otherwise to constrain the internet through activities like SOPA/PIPA, Hadopi (the French “three strikes” regulation that is currently being studied on request of the German government, too), filtering, take-downs and takeovers.“

Will the multiplication of fora help governments to arrive at more consistent politics with regard to the internet governance and digital rights? With a potential Chicago follow-up to the eG8 internet talks in Paris last year (around the G8 and NATO meetings under US presidency in May), the conference Cyber 2012 hosted by the Hungarian government on 4-5 October in Budapest (after London 2011) – governing the net has seemingly become very fashionable. There is no problem in having additional fora, in the eyes of the Council of Europe’s Hibbard. “Who could do it alone?” he said.

Yet a pooling of resources could help the very badly nurtured IGF, which after 14 months without a chief secretary – or chairman – is struggling even to fill its vacancies. According to experts for the secretariat position, lack of funding is a major problem. Former Secretary Markus Kummer, now hired by the Internet Society (ISOC), nevertheless points to the self-organising power the body showed in its Nairobi meeting – a success according to Kummer despite the body moving forward on a very slim secretariat.

The big advantage of the IGF despite the unwillingness of many countries – even declared supporters – to weigh in with some Swiss francs was the sheer convening power of the UN Secretary General. “If he invites people, they tend to come,” said Kummer. A review process for the IGF undertaken by a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIGF) [pdf] of the Committee of Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) restarted last year and led by Hungarian diplomat Peter Major has also been discussing the question of whether and how the IGF should “develop more tangible and impact oriented output.” according to a report by activists of the Internet Governance Caucus.

There is a lot of talk on how to better talk about internet governance issues at the UN. Another re-started thread in the UN is the one on “enhanced cooperation” (18 May in Geneva), the somehow stillborn sister concept of the 2003-2005 World Summit of the Information Society. “Enhanced cooperation” had been pushed for by governments that were not happy with the existing internet governance arrangements, especially ICANN and the US root zone oversight.

Internet Governance Talking Ecosystem and a New Internet Protest Culture

Negative effects of potential changes to existing arrangements in telecommunications and internet management have been belaboured since the beginning of 2012 by various US officials with pointers to another big conference, the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT). This ITU conference (December, 3-14 in Dubai) is tasked with an update of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) [pdf]. The ITRs are a treaty from 1988, which with the advent of privatisation of telecommunications and the big leap forward of information and internet technology look rather rusty.

“1988 is light years away from an internet point of view,” Kummer said. “It is certainly difficult to be against a review.” Yet for the ISOC as for some administrations the devil in these talks is in the details, even if not everybody is as concerned as US Federal Communications Commissioner Robert M. McDowell who loudly called to the arms against “giving the United Nations unprecedented powers over the Internet” in a Wall Street Journal commentary just days before an WCIT prep meeting taking place in Geneva this week.

The already proverbial “UN takeover” according to McDowell this time could be brought about by subjecting cyber security and data privacy to international control”, by establishing “for the first time ITU dominion over important functions of multi-stakeholder Internet governance entities such as such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers,” by subsuming under intergovernmental control many functions of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Society and other multi-stakeholder groups or by regulating peering and termination rates and mobile roaming practices. Adding issues like cyber security in the ITR as China or Russia propose is a no-go for the US.

It is very hard to imagine that the ITU will arrive at such far reaching conclusions, even if some old proposals like a role for the ITU in handing out Ipv6 has been tabled by Russia again and there is some vague clause in proposed modifications with regard to not allowing devices harmful for the network to the net.

Bertrand de la Chapelle, a former French special envoy for internet issues now an ICANN Board member and program director of International Diplomatic Academy, predicted that the ITR review attempt will be just another failure to solve internet governance issues in a traditional way. By the end of the year, de la Chapelle said, “we will have tested every single regulatory approach, from plain old national regulation like SOPA and PIPA, to mini-lateralising ACTA and multilateral options like ITR.”

At a recent meeting of domain name managers in Hamburg, de la Chapelle therefore proposed to rather consider regulation of community territories from “Facebook” or “Google” to their Chinese competitors “Qzone” or “Weibo”. Users and also governments could perhaps become the stakeholders in “governing” these supranational territories.

Users have started their grab for more power in internet governance outside of the traditional or even new channels like the international IGF or their children, in Europe (14-15 June); Africa (West) in Freetown, 2-4 July in Sierra Leone; (East), 9-11 May in Dar es Salaam or, starting in 2012, in the Arab States [pdf]. Their call to arms against PIPA, SOPA and ACTA led to high level politicians’ buckling – at least for the time being. If initiatives like the “Free Internet Act” could gather the support of the Anti-ACTA and Anti-PIPA crowds from the internet streets, 2012 might become an even more interesting year.

More lists on important internet governance related meetings are to be found here.

A calendar by the Internet Society (including more technical meetings) which celebrates its 20th birthday in 2012 is here.

Monika Ermert may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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