Who governs the internet?
There has been a global discussion on the principles of internet governance, on developing a framework that negotiates the interests of users, corporations and governments. Recently, the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body that gives top-level web addresses, moved part of its functions from the US government to a global “multi-stakeholder” community.
, founder of the Internet Governance Project and professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, speaks to
about this transition. Edited excerpts:
What difference would the transition make for a country like India where a lot of people are still offline?
The transition doesn’t really affect the level of participation; perhaps to the extent that the ICANN is seen as more legitimate now.That may make a minor difference in terms of the participants, but in terms of the actual influence that they have, it wouldn’t be different. If you are talking about concerns of access and development, most of those are not really internet governance issues but physical layer issues.
You had said that the Governmental Advisory Committee in the ICANN was inherently unstable, and that it was like the UN within the ICANN. Now that the post-transition terms of engagement are established, do you think that still holds?
It is. The problem with the GAC is not so much that it represents governments.But you have this one-government-one-position approach to it, which makes it just like an intergovernmental organisation.
Do you see diplomatic bargaining between countries making its way into internet governance forums after the transition from US control?
I think it’s not so much between countries. But within ICANN as a whole, there is bargaining between stake holders, and also between the board and the staff of ICANN, which unfortunately still is a very powerful actor. So ICANN might give something to the GAC, not because it has a policy consensus, but because they might say , “Here you go, gov er nments, we want you to like us. We don’t want you to be bad-mouthing us or delegitimising our system. So we’ll give you something”.That can happen.
Before the transition, there was a contract between the US and the ICANN. Whenever that con tract came up for renewal, everybody in Congress and interest groups in the US would lobby the Commerce Department to put things into the contract to make ICANN do what they wanted it to do. It was this leverage over the contract and its placement within the American political system that was the real significance of the IANA functions contract.
The fact that the ICANN is still incorporated in the US makes people feel that the change after the transition was superficial. What do you think?
Actually, some Indian intellectuals have been making a big fuss about jurisdiction. These people are increasingly confusing me.Yes, ICANN is still incorporated in California. And we built an elaborate corporate governance scheme designed to create accountability around California law.This doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans are more powerful in the ICANN than people from other countries.
Now that the US government is no longer intervening directly, it’s difficult for the American policy process to shape what the ICANN does. ICANN makes its policy through its stakeholders group, supporting organisations, and the GAC. Anybody can participate regardless of jurisdiction.
Then they have to fall back to the position that, let’s suppose the US is at war with India…they could delete the .in directory. In the old system, the US could do that, though they never did. To delete .in, you’d have to have a policy coming through ICANN, which wouldn’t happen as ICANN is not dominated by Americans. Or, and this is what they are raising as a possible threat, that the US would pass a law that would say to the ICANN -“You must do this. We have leverage over you, and for national security reasons, you should do this because you are in the US jurisdiction.” It’s not impossible for that to happen in the US, but that could happen anywhere. The jurisdiction of corporations is mostly about corporate governance and the mechanisms we use to keep ICANN accountable, not about policy-making.