What Happened to the Internet During the Government Shutdown?

A funny thing happened while we all watched the tragic comedy known as the budget crisis – someone went and made some decisions about the future of the Internet. Or, well, not to put too fine a point on it, decided we need to make some major decisions on how to govern the Internet.

Meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, the leaders of organizations responsible for coordination of the Internet technical infrastructure globally recognized that the Internet and World Wide Web have been built and governed in the public interest through unique mechanisms for global multistakeholder Internet cooperation, which have been intrinsic to their success. OK, all good so far. But the leaders went on to discuss “the clear need to continually strengthen and evolve these mechanisms, in truly substantial ways, to be able to address emerging issues faced by stakeholders in the Internet.” And that’s what’s raising eyebrows.

Ever since its creation, the core functionality of the Internet has, more or less, been under the direct supervision of the United States, by way of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) Functions Contract. The main criticism of Internet oversight by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has revolved around it being an outgrowth of, and influenced continuously by, the U.S. government – and all the problems inherent in such single-sided oversight. ICANN was intended, over time, to assume all Internet governance responsibilities and eventually become fully autonomous. But the U.S. government has been slow to allow this and many have been irked that this has meant that ICANN continues to be pressured to do things the U.S. way.

The leaders who met in Uruguay represent ICANN, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Society (ISOC), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), as well as the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), the Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC), African Network Information Center (AFRINIC), the Latin America and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC), and the Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC). In a press release they announced that, at the end of their discussions, they:

  1. Expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance. (looking at you, U.S. National Security Agency)
  2. Reinforced the importance of globally coherent Internet operations, and warned against Internet fragmentation at a national level. (ahem, Brazil, Brazil (again) and Germany)
  3. Identified the need for ongoing efforts to address Internet Governance challenges, and agreed to catalyze community-wide efforts towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation.
  4. Called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.
  5. Called for the transition to IPv6 to remain a top priority globally. In particular Internet content providers must serve content with both IPv4 and IPv6 services, in order to be fully reachable on the global Internet.

The Internet Governance Project and Syracuse University Professor Milton Mueller get major kudos for bringing attention to this development this week. Prof Mueller characterized the statement as “all the major Internet organizations … turn[ing] their back on the U.S. government.” Mueller highlights point 4 above as “an explicit rejection of the U.S. Commerce Department’s unilateral oversight of ICANN through the IANA contract” and an indirect attack on the “U.S. unilateral approach to the Affirmation of Commitments, the pact between the U.S. and ICANN which provides for periodic reviews of its activities by the [Governmental Advisory Committee] and other members of the ICANN community.” Prof Mueller spoke with participants in the discussions and found that they were thinking of new forms of multistakeholder oversight as a substitute for US oversight, although no detailed blueprint exists.

And Mueller reports that the discussion did not end in Uruguay. After the Montevideo meeting, ICANN President and CEO Fadi Chehadi met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and asked her to “elevate her leadership to a new level, to ensure that we can all get together around a new model of governance in which all are equal.” On October 10, Brazil announced it will host a global summit on Internet governance in April 2014. And Chehadi praised President Rousseff for using her UN General Assembly speech in September to demand measures to thwart the massive U.S. cyber spying operation revealed by U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Mueller concludes:

“Make no mistake about it: this is important. It is the latest, and one of the most significant manifestations of the fallout from the Snowden revelations about NSA spying on the global Internet…. [T]his is different. Brazil’s state is now allied with the spokespersons for all of the organically evolved Internet institutions, the representatives of the very 'multi-stakeholder model' the US purports to defend. You know you’ve made a big mistake, a life-changing mistake, when even your own children abandon you en masse.”

Now, a criticism of letting the ICANN be totally autonomous is it puts the organization that much more under the influence of nations calling for censorship of the Internet, such as China and Russia. Earlier this year, ICANN’s Chehad expressed worries that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was going to eclipse ICANN's functionality and place Internet governance that much more in the hands of those who are less inclined to practice a laissez-faire policy.

Unfortunately, it's gotten that much harder to see the United States as one of the good guys. As Mueller points out, the U.S. has stalled for too long on letting the ICANN become a truly international organization with "clear rules regarding what ICANN can and cannot do, an agreement that explicitly protects freedom of expression and other individual rights and liberal Internet governance principles." In his eyes, ICANN's now preparing to go its own way -- with or without the U.S.

In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Prof Mueller describes the Montevideo statement as a tremor that could denote the coming of a major earthquake in Internet governance. For 15 years or so, there’s been simmering natural rivalries caused by U.S. control of ICANN through the IANA contract. Mueller sees a fundamental decision moving forward: is Internet governance dominated by nation states or self-governance by civil society and the private sector? “[I]f we keep militarizing and nationalizing the Internet we’ll end up with something like the more restrictive and controlled telephone networks of the 1970s,” Mueller told the Journal. He added, “I think this trend toward territorialization or fragmentation could continue. I think things could be fundamentally interconnected in some way, but we could end up with a lot of these national gateways like the one the Chinese run that if a national government doesn’t approve the content, it simply doesn’t get it.”

Mueller offers best and worst case scenarios:

  • The best case is that everyone comes to their senses and realizes that the governance of the Internet has to be decentralized and global and as minimal as possible. So we have this summit and the U.S. agrees to let it go and certain new multi-stakeholder agreements emerge.
  • The worst case is that the U.S. withdrawal from oversight responsibility emboldens more authoritarian governments like China and even democracies that have what they see as strong public interests for intervening in the Internet, they set up a top-heavy form of oversight that restricts what businesses can do.

So, in this arena, attention turns now to, first, how the U.S. responds to the announcement of a Brazil summit. Will the U.S. reject it out of hand, engage in it, or offer an alternative to move the debate forward? We’ll be watching closely – well, at least, ‘til the next government shutdown. In the meantime, we’ll see you in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.