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Internet Governance: Squaring the Circle

by Renate Riedl

The more the Internet becomes ubiquitous, the more interest it evokes among those with the desire for power. Multi-stakeholders such as governments, industrial companies, and civil rights groups claim their right to "control" the Internet. Being inherently a decentralized network, there is little possibility of gaining control from a single point at the top. Looking at the technical coordination of the Internet, a crucial point in the struggle to gain influence is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

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What ICANN Can and Can't Do

The main responsibilities of ICANN are the Domain Name System (DNS), the management of the root server system, and the number protocol space allocation. When looking for a website on the Internet, I type names instead of the numbers that my computer works with. A long number is something I don't remember easily. The tool by which my computer converts names into numbers is the DNS. The DNS is a decentralized database, converting numeric Internet Protocol addresses into more easily memorable addresses such as www.ostina.org. Important parts of the distributed hierarchical system are root servers. These servers,on its top only 13, are needed to find the location of a site or address. This system makes sure you can find the one globally unique address you want to reach. If there were no central point in charge of this technical coordination, you would get multiple results for one address. A limited number of 4,294,967,296 unique Internet Protocol number addresses are available. Subdivided into blocks, these numbers are allocated to registries, then in charge of further allocation to providers, and then users. Not included in the competence of ICANN are the regulation and investigation of problems such as spam, intellectual property, privacy, or child pornography.


ICANN was incorporated as a private-public partnership in California in 1998. It is governed by a Board of Directors, which currently consists of 19 members from various countries. The Board of Directors makes the decisions after consulting the whole Internet Community. Several committees and public online forums can participate and advance opinions. The Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) offers advisory power to the Board of Directors. Around eighty countries make use of the opportunity to be part of the Committee. So far, this Committee is the only possibility of participation governments have. Main principles in ICANN's work were, and still are, a broad international participation, bottom-up policy, and transparency.
The still-existing bond, as well as the seat of ICANN in the US, can be explained if you look at the historical development of the Internet. Internet and the DNS were developed by various researchers in the US with federal funding. The name and technical coordination were performed under oversight of the US government by various entities. Main focus has always been on self-regulation rather than top-down decisions by a single body. With the growing global impact and commercial use of the Internet, the US government decided to step forward to internationalization. Therefore the Clinton Administration made an agreement with ICANN to oversee the technical regulations in the future. With the legal form ICANN has now, it avoided existing international institutions or founding a new governmental organization.
From the beginning, ICANN has never been free from criticism. For example, decisions about new domain names such as .biz or .eu, as well as the election of new ICANN Directors were accompanied with complaints about lack of transparency, undemocratic procedures, and too much US influence. Regardless of the problems and deficits, ICANN has managed to function through the short years of its existence and post 9/11. Michael Froomkin, Professor of Law at the University of Miami, noted for being one of ICANN's hardest critics, stated: "The strength is that by being all the things that it is not - not the US government, not the UN, and so on - ICANN enjoys a reservoir of goodwill, or at least 'devil-we-know' mentality, and thus it continues to attract very qualified people to its Board."

The Current Debate about Governance and ICANN's Future


November 2005 will initiate the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). It is a conference organized as a UN Summit to discuss the impact of information technology on the society and the lives of people. After the first phase in 2003 in Geneva, the UN Secretary-General established the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG). This group prepared a questionnaire about different issues concerning the Internet and its governance structure. Under consideration are topics such as which body should be in charge, which has oversight, which role should existing institutions have, or what part should governments play. Interested parties can give feedback to this questionnaire for further discussions. The WGIG will then publish a report on July 18, 2005. Michael Froomkin speaks of the impact WSIS might have on ICANN: "WSIS is a both a threat and an opportunity. The worst case is that some governments will use it as a means to try to claim a role in regulating Internet content. The best case is that it will emerge as a counterweight - neither too strong nor too weak - to ICANN."
Many countries voiced their dissatisfaction about the still-existing relationship between the US government and ICANN. The possibility of US government influence is a thorn in the flesh of many other governments. The Department of Commerce has supervision over ICANN, retaining the right to exert policy authority over the DNS root. Looking back at the history, the existing connection is understandable, but some countries see their sovereignty affected and demand more influence on governance matters. Vinton Cerf, member of ICANN's Board of Directors and one of the developers of the Internet, commented on this: "The US Government has repeatedly expressed its desire to reach the point where the relationship between the US Government and ICANN is essentially no different than the relationship between any other government and ICANN. Speaking personally, I believe the US Government has shown not only a willingness, but has taken leadership in moving oversight of the Internet into the private sector, starting with the decision by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency NOT to limit global access to the specifications of the Internet in any way."
The agreement between the US Department of Commerce and ICANN ends in 2006. Also waiting for implementation is a new Internet Protocol (IvP6) expanding the available amount of worldwide addresses to several undecillion. This is considered to be necessary for a rapidly growing world population and the growing use of mobile and wireless Internet. While awaiting decisions to give directions for the future, a wide range of possibilities for ICANN's development are open.


Some of the questions in the WGIG questionnaire pertain directly to the core competencies of ICANN. Although expressly declaring itself not to be a policy maker, the decisions made by ICANN have eminent influence on the infrastructure, and therefore the further development of the Internet itself. Being a decentralized, bottom-up grown network, the DNS and its root servers offer one of the very few possibilities for interfering and gaining control over the Internet at a singular point. It is unlikely that the technical regulation of the Internet can be kept out of political discussions and governments standing in line to gain influence. Vinton Cerf speaks to this: "There is always the potential that a rational discussion on technical policy (such as the framework and rationale for new Top Level Domain Name creation or the allocation of Internet Protocol Address space) can become politicized. One can see this effect in the discussions of the WGIG and the WSIS."
A number of countries would like to see the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) or the United Nations (UN) in charge of a completely new agency. Both organizations have already shown increasing interest in taking on responsibilities or taking over the tasks from ICANN. The main argument for this solution is legitimacy. The international organizations are accredited undisputed representatives of people. Many would prefer a new independent organization in charge of the technical aspects, as well as many other aspects such as spam or privacy. Others would like to see the situation around ICANN untouched except for small adaptations. Again Vinton Cerf: "It is entirely possible that some details of ICANN's structure and relationships will change - for example, the Governmental Advisory Committee could possibly take on a more substantive role."
In the forefront of the World Summit, the contrary statements on the WGIG questionnaire made it obvious that the only clear agreement is that there should be some kind of change. The broad range of suggestions leaves the possibilities wide open in almost every direction. Divergent approaches to governance, besides other discrepancies, showed up. So far, not even a working definition for "governance" exists.


Who Is In And Who Is Out?


Besides the topic of who should participate in making decisions, is the question of truly democratic representation. Only a few people, mostly domiciled in rich countries, make inventions, decisions, and money with and through the Internet. Left behind are those who have no access at all to the Internet. This social issue in reference to the gap between rich and poor countries or within rich countries, discriminating between those with and those without access to the Internet, is called a digital gap or digital divide. It is debatable whether ICANN, with its technical competence, can do anything at all to address this problem. Professor Froomkin comments on the digital divide: "The most critical thing is to extend the reach of the Internet. Once there are users, the rest follows. I don't think ICANN should have any role at all in trying to deal with 'digital divide' issues - that's not its mandate and certainly not its skill set." The technical aspects of the Internet don't offer much of a starting-point to deal with these socio-economic issues. Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, Associate Professor at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, remarked on this issue: "ICANN has very little if anything to do with the digital divide. In fact, the ICANN debate is being hijacked not by developing countries, but by powerful players like China to maximize their national gains."
One recent initiative to implement a financial mechanism for development is the Digital Solidarity Fund Foundation (DSF), founded this year with headquarters in Geneva. Its digital solidarity clause requires a company that uses the "Digital Solidarity" brand, to contribute 1% of the total amount of the transaction, paid on its profit margin, to the Digital Solidarity Fund. Other initiatives try to stimulate computer education in developing countries. A more pressing issue - and a question that remains unanswered - is whether somebody really cares about his role in the Internet if he is illiterate, or lacks clean water, or doesn't know where the next meal is coming from.

Satisfying Them All?


With all the pending questions about governance and participation of stakeholders at issue, it is necessary to find a practical and sustainable solution. Divergent perceptions of the Internet's future by the parties involved make it a seemingly insoluble task to reconcile all of them. Whatever the outcome is, some parties will not be pleased. The answers lie somewhere between private self-regulation and international organization, multi-stakeholders and single body, top-down and decentralization. This all has to be considered while, at the same time, the character of the Internet as linking network is maintained.

Renate Riedl joined the Office of Science & Technology as a Junior Visiting Expert from April to June 2005

Statements kindly provided by
- Vinton G. Cerf, ICANN's Board of Directors
- Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of 
- Michael Froomkin, University of Miami, School of Law
- ICANN, www.icann.org
- ICANNWatch, www.icannwatch.org
- Official Website of World Summit on the Information Society, http://www.itu.int/wsis/
- Working Group on Internet Governance, WGIG, http://www.wgig.org/
Documents on WGIG website:
- Questionnaire WGIG on Internet Governance
- Statement European Presidency, 18th April 2005
- Statement ICANN

- International Telecommunication Union, http://www.itu.int/home/
- Additional Background Reading:
Committee for Democracy in Internet, http://www.cdi.org.br/
- Council of European National TLD Registries, http://www.centr.org/
- Internet Democracy Project, http://www.internetdemocracyproject.org/
- Internet Governance Project, http://www.internetgovernance.org/
- Internet Society, http://www.isoc.org/
- Net Dialogue, http://netdialogue.org/
- Digital Solidarity Fund, http://www.dsf-fsn.org/
- Introducing Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger: Bringing Cyberspace and Law together at
Harvard University in bridges, 20th July 2004,

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