[Unedited version of a blog post which was heavily edited for LSE Media Policy blog].
The Internet Governance Forum is a diverting annual sideshow, a pit-stop on the flying circus towards Internet governance, with no heads of state, few ministers, no European Commissioner and only a few of Internet engineering’s legendary inventors, such as Louis Pouzin. But it matters, as much as for what is said than what is not done. Yes, it is “sprawling, unfocused and formally useless” with five days of often ten parallel workshops all with bewilderingly similar titles, but it is also a vital junction between the governing and the governed. You have never seen Internet governance in action until you have seen a Chinese diplomat make ludicrous and chilling claims about human rights and free expression in their censored Intranet, to be hissed and laughed at by a roomful of activists. It makes for a wonderful forum of differences.
Make no mistake, there are real problems with Internet governance – encryption is broken by bad faith government actors (Dual EC DRBG in particular), which is shattering to its integrity as a communications network. Imagine a postal system in which every letter can be opened. That will be high on the list of issues argued at the IETF Vancouver meeting beginning this Sunday – though encryption is marginal to the central work of most IETF network engineers and no-one has a real solution.
Bad faith and loss of integrity also neatly sums up most governments’ and people’s view of the Five Eyes’ activities, even though avuncular Ed Vaizey, Britain’s telecoms minister, avoided discussing PRISM and surveillance by the British secret services at the IGF. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had her phone bugged since 2002 when she was an opposition politician, and it is bugging of her phone that has finally led her to real upset at Five Eyes surveillance (personal offence leading to a general public interest inquiry just like the UK Leveson Inquiry). Laws may not stop surveillance by foreign governments, and proposed United Nations resolutions will be studiously ignored by the US, but European data protection laws can really impact on US multinational actors, hurting the US government in the wallet.
So we move on from the Bali forum, with its post-modern ironic Miss Indonesia Internet (surely?), to a summit that will really matter: the Rio Summit of April 2014. There is a magnificent description from BestBits of how ICANN President Fadi Chehade managed to persuade the Brazilian President to hold a multistakeholder rather than multilateral meeting, over the head of her state-centric communications minister (who continued to dig himself into a multilateral hole throughout the Bali forum). For the un-initiated: multilateral means governments, which means China, Russia, Arab, Asian and African kleptocracies plus a few well-meaning others, multistakeholder means some lucky winners from civil society will be able to speak truth and expertise to power at an actual decision-making forum: Bali with balls.
What will the Rio Summit aim to do? First, it has to deal with the issue of ICANN and IANA – who rules the root and will the US hand over control in 2015? The last head of ICANN also tried to declare independence in 2011/12, and was shackled by the renewed Affirmation of Commitments to the US government, which “basically gave him the finger” in response. As a result, ICANN is “almost free” but still under formal unilateral legal control. We shall soon see where that hyperpower’s digit is placed next – in Bali it was firmly jammed in its ear to avoid hearing the word ‘Snowden’.
Second, the Rio delegates must deal with the intractable ‘orphan’ issues, which Ian Brown and I recently described as the “hard cases” where there is no current regulatory settlement in place. These include glacial IPv6 adoption, the Internet of Things (think ‘Stuff’ rather than people) which Alison Powell described in yesterday’s blog post, as well as international rules for interconnection, and the reaction of telecoms companies to Over The Top services and apps, which were debated at the new Dynamic Coalition on Network Neutrality (video of panel here). These dynamic coalitions do a lot of the serious regulatory preparatory work at the IGF, while most workshops are less substantive and more sloganised. The I* (pronounced I-star) standards organisations (ICANN, IAB, IETF, W3C, ISOC) had substantial presence at the Bali Forum, and discussed the benefits of their self-regulatory approach, though Jeremy Malcolm, Avri Doria and Amelia Andersdotter highlighted the lack of formal multistakeholderism and significant corporate capture in W3C. Network architecture is a critically important part of Internet governance.
Jeremy Malcolm argues that the Rio Summit itself effectively reduces next April’s WSIS+10, the decade-on retrospective on the original World Summit on the Information Society which kicked off the travelling circus, to irrelevance, and predates the November 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary (hosted by South Korea) at which Russia and China are expected to renew their power grab after their failure at the WCIT in December 2012 (see my earlier post). A lot rides on this Rio summit as the ‘last best hope for civil society’ before the ugly face of undemocratic government tries to reframe these issues. One of the Five Eyes’ domain registrars, Australian Chris Disspain, argued using unfortunate Iraq War language that our current US-controlled arrangements are a “quiet coalition of the willing” that could fall victim to multilateral control (i.e. ITU under China-Russia-others).
Fans of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope will recall a series of Road To… films in which a backlot of a Hollywood studio doubled up as paradise for US marines nostalgic for the WWII beaches they fought for and their families read about (including Road to Bali, Rio and Utopia, which turned out to be an Alaskan goldmine). Internet governance is much the same, with the real action taking place in ICANN’s California headquarters, even if its President is moving himself to Singapore and the travelling circus continues, ICANN convening on 17 November in Buenos Aires for instance.
We shall see if the Brazilian government, which has anti-corruption riots in its own streets, can conjure a solution to Internet governance in its annus mirabilis, which is somewhat closer to multistakeholder dialogue than its brutally censorious Chinese and Russian allies would like. The latter would be a road to an awful Dystopia…in fact to zemblanity. We will have to be exceedingly careful what we wish for in the next chapter of Internet governance.