Thursday, March 27, 2014

Internet Governance: A Leadership Challenge

A few days ago, the Obama administration announced its plan to give up control over online domain names and addresses by 2015 when its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) expires. The latter has been in charge of managing Internet addresses since 1998.

The plan is to transfer this function to a group of “multi-stakeholders”. This is the same idea advanced by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which was convened under the auspices of the United Nations. WSIS defines “multi-stakeholders” as “governments, the private sector, civil society, and the technical and academic community to nominate representatives from within their respective stakeholder communities to be selected by the UN.”

The participation of governments means the participation of national sovereign powers of any type – dictatorship or authoritarian, monarchy, democratic, and non-democratic.  They may include North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, and other countries.

The involvement of the United Nations would have been desirable by virtue of the fact that the countries participating are signatories to International Treaties, Covenants, Executive Agreements, and the like. The problem is, some of these countries disregard International Law that covers these treaties. In fact, two (China and Russia) even have veto powers in the UN Security Council.

The United States prides itself not only as a land of the free and a shining example of democracy and republicanism but also as promoter and protector of the democratic ideals worldwide.

The role of the United States in creating the Internet and overseeing its tremendous growth and successful development cannot be ignored. By providing the necessary resources and effective oversight, it became a worldwide network benefitting billions of inhabitants. 

The Internet is where all users regardless of race, nationality, economic class, gender, age, and/or color could exercise freedom of expression.  It is also where freedom of association is respected. 

The Internet, being more accessible, available, and affordable to the masses, data, information, knowledge, and education have been easily accessible to them as well.  This is true in democratic governments as opposed to repressive regimes that restrict access to information and communications.

Of course, the right to privacy and data protection are also respected in the Cyberworld. So are consumer rights. New entrepreneurs have found easy ways of locating markets via online.

Even a freer exercise of religion through online preaching and propagation of their faith has been shown.

So, in the exercise of its oversight functions, and in investing on a new world structure, the United States did not do badly.  “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

The idea of turning over ICANN’s functions to a “multi-stakeholder” would some day be desirable if all governments or their front organizations have learned to respect human rights and not to restrict access to information and communications.  In fact, it would be great for all stakeholders if all governments would guarantee access to the Internet and adopt general principles to ensure that network use respects universal human rights.

Former President Bill Clinton who objects to the Obama plan had this to say, “I understand in theory why we would like to have a multi-stakeholder process. I favor that. I just know that a lot of these so-called multi-stakeholders are really governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet.”

He also said, “A lot of people who have been trying to take this authority from the U.S. for the sole purpose of cracking down on Internet freedom and limiting it and having governments protect their backsides instead of empowering the people.”

The former President makes sense.  The Internet or the Cyberworld is the newest world order. The United States government gave birth to it, nurtured it, and oversaw its growth and development. It is a world predicted by its founders by creating its architecture and net infrastructure to become a dominant creature.

It is a world where the cloud is the limit.  It is democracy on display for the entire world to see. Either by design or by default, the United States is the undisputed leader.  It is one where the United States could promote and protect democratic ideals together with its freedom-loving allies. We are not even talking about its role on Cybercrime Prevention and Cybersecurity.

On the other hand, giving it up would just be helping the enemies of democracy.  It would allow the repressive governments to influence, if not control, content of the Internet. Those who regard certain contents as a threat to their holds to power could easily apply censorship. They could also stall technological innovation as these hostile governments dictate what can and cannot be done with the net.

The Internet has been managed by the United States for the benefit of the whole world. I do not see any good reason to abandon whatever role the country still has.

President Obama’s move is not an assertion of leadership. It is giving it up!

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