The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) has just finished its second meeting about the future of the Internet, in a meeting in Tunis. Possibly for the first time ever, the words “Information”, “Tunisia” and “Internet” are being used in the same sentence without a qualifier meaning “lack of” or “subversion of”. The oddness of that conjunction is emblematic of the good and bad that WSIS brings us.
Interest in WSIS has grown considerably since ICANN, after getting roasted in June for its award of the .net domain to VeriSign on very generous terms, in late October infuriated its remaining supporters by signing a new deal with VeriSign for .com, which did away with price controls and extended VeriSign’s control of the prized .com registry for the foreseeable future. In trademark ICANN fashion, the whys and wherefores of the ICANN Board’s decision are mysterious, and the deal has demoralized those who have pushed ICANN to be what it claims to be: an institution of bottom-up, transparent decision-making.
Is WSIS a Better Alternative?
The strength of the WSIS process is that it speaks about the digital divide. Because of its UN sponsorship, it attracts people from various countries in a way that ICANN, with its membership of pro- and anti-elite elites and anemic outreach programs, never will.
The weakness of WSIS is that the talk about the digital divide is just that. Very few people with any power are really talking about extending the Internet to actual people. Instead, they talk about extending it governments. It’s just another governmental power struggle, framed now by the concept of “sovereignty.” No doubt due in part to resentment over GW Bush’s imperial foreign policies, the Europeans are joining with just about everyone else to try to pry open the U.S. Government’s grip on the levers that control Internet addressing and routing. The U.S. isn’t budging and Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota) has put forward a bill to prevent any change in control.
While the U.S., and ICANN, can be infuriating, is a UN-sponsored quorum of governmental interests a better solution? (Apologies to anyone who showed up to represent civil society, but I can’t see WSIS as anything other than a move to create a multilateral governmental control mechanism.)
To see what multilateral governmental control could mean, examine first of all the venue, Tunisia. There isn’t any Internet in Tunisia as most of us would know it. Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders) lists Tunisia as an enemy of the Internet. The President and his family have a monopoly on Internet access there, and jail cyberdissidents.
So, in a meeting in a country that censors the Internet, where people representing civil society are given “observer” status, we are treated to (for example) a speech by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia (he who jails dissidents), about the necessity of “
tough laws ethical standards that will stand as a rampart protecting our societies against people who disagree with me negative uses of modern communication….”. Also present, giving speeches about how we should use the Internet, were such arch-defenders of free speech and human rights as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (forced relocation of political opponents), Mr. Roberto Ignacio Gonzales Planas of Cuba (widespread imprisonment of political dissidents), and Omer Hassan Ahmed Elbashir of Sudan (genocide). This is just a quick sampling. Representatives of many repressive nations were present to give their views on how the Internet should work.
In case you think that the interest in censoring the Internet comes just from dictators and quasi-dictators, consider that Stephane Bortzmeyer reports that the French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is proposing legislation (see section 2) that would mandate systematic automatic filtering of Internet content by all French ISPs, under the pretext of protecting minors (links in this paragraph in French).
There are voices that may have some effect in reforming ICANN, but don’t stand a chance of making the slightest impression in the verbal flourishes and moral gymnastics of Mugabe, Elbashir, Ben Ali and others. Doc Searls notes the Tunisian filtering; Bret Fausett provides his usual thoughful analysis about WSIS; Ken Cukier, a very intelligent journalist in this space, provides a good overview; and we can hope that the estimable ICANN Board Member-elect Susan Crawford will continue to write in her terrific blog about this and other issues. These voices of sense and reason have a hope of influencing ICANN; the voices that influence WSIS and its sponsors, on the other hand, are exclusively governmental.
As appalling as ICANN may be, the WSIS/ITU/U.N. alternative appears to me to be far worse. But ICANN had better be ready for mass defections if a viable alternative shows up.