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When elephants make love, the grass gets trampled

perspective Back from the first United Nations Internet Governance Forum, attorney Steve Ryan assesses whether it achieved its stated purpose.

perspective The first United Nations Internet Governance Forum wrapped up last week in Athens, Greece, providing an appropriate point to reassess the state of international Internet governance activities. The forum is the more attractive offspring of last year's World Summit on the Information Society that was held in Tunis, Tunisia. At that meeting, countries like China, Cuba, Brazil, Syria, Iran, Russia, and many others, sought to impose a broad international government structure over the Internet but were temporarily turned back from their quest.

Was the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) a success? From an American perspective, the answer hinges on whether ideals broadly held by the U.S. Internet community were furthered. Our citizens support the appropriate role of governmental bodies in catching criminals and providing a framework for consumer protection, for example. But our citizens also insist upon permitting freedom of speech and robust commercial freedom by limiting inappropriate governmental interference.

Control issues
How can we accurately describe the current kaleidoscope of nation-state authority, ICANN activity and the role of citizens and international governance on the Internet? It ranges from the highest level of government control to limited control where individuals and businesses are encouraged to self-regulate and put certain protocols in place (e.g. spam filters). In between lies regional Internet IP registries and the rules imposed by individual national governments.

ICANN's more than occasional political tone deafness will not be enhanced by losing its most deft and respected spokesperson.

The highest degree of control is espoused by nations like China, Brazil, Cuba, Iran, and Russia. They genuinely believe only elected national governments will be able to create a regime that will decide Internet governance issues at the level of the U.N. These statist nations are joined in this quest by current international government organizations, such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which are searching for relevancy in the post-20th-century-postal-telephone-national-monopoly era.

The ITU consistently expresses its own claim to legitimacy in Internet governance. The leading spokesman of the ITU at the IGF, its outgoing Secretary General, Yoshio Utsumi of Japan, had the sharpest words to those assembled in Athens. After citing what he summarized as the "continued lack of consensus" regarding Internet governance, he stated that it "borders on arrogance" to believe national governments and the ITU should not have the controlling role in Internet governance.

This unnamed rebuke of ICANN--and of U.S. government policy propping up ICANN--was not diplomatically stated. Utsumi, whose views weren't widely shared at the conference, decried those who have "self-serving justifications" for continuing any nongovernmental regime of Internet governance.

Cultural and socioeconomic issues were also heavily debated--with nations like Iran decrying that its values "were not represented adequately," along with a claim that those in the Third World were required to spend 15 percent of their income on telecommunications and Internet connection, while in the developed world it only costs 3 percent of income. Those issues and how the Internet Governance Forum will handle them remains to be seen.

The venerable founders
Two of the seminal inventors of the Internet, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, were on hand to lend scientific credence to the policy debate of Internet governance. Kahn cited two key ways the Internet succeeded: first, that it was removed from central control through its open architecture; and second, it was fueled by the active cooperative participation by the research community.

Cerf warned the assembled government representatives that the desire for internationalized domain names (IDNs) that moved beyond Latin characters A to Z and 1 to 9 was indeed inevitable, but he did not minimize the challenge this worthy goal posed to global interoperability. Cert warned: "Any misstep on the rules" for IDNs could break the Internet. It was not immediately clear that the assembled government representatives from around the world accepted his warning.

There is a palpable concern in the Internet community that ICANN will be badly harmed by Cerf's being "termed out" and having to leave ICANN's board, which he has chaired with distinction. ICANN's more than occasional political tone deafness will not be enhanced by losing its most deft and respected spokesman.

On November 12 to 14, 2007, the Internet Governance Forum will resume its march, this time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Rio meeting will likely have a harder policy edge, reflecting Brazil's far greater comfort with an Internet run by governments, not NGOs. (In 2008 the IGF meeting will be in India, 2009 in Egypt, and 2010 likely in Lithuanian or Azerbaijan.)

The secretary general's designated chairman, Nitin Desai of India, stated on the last day of the conference an old Indian saying: "When elephants make love, the grass gets trampled." It is an apt metaphor for the government elephants tramping through and making love over the grass of the Internet. See you in Rio.