By Susan Crawford
In June of 2011, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union. According to a transcript of the first minutes of the meeting subsequently published by the Russian government, Putin said:
We are thankful to you for the ideas that you have proposed for discussion. One of them is establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Putin’s comment, taken together with several other recent moves by China, India, and Brazil, makes clear that 2012 will be a crucial year for the free flow of information around the world. If you don’t know the history, Putin’s comment sounds like any other soundbite in a constant barrage of bureaucratic politesse. If you do, you’re worried about the future of the Internet.
Here’s the shorthand: The ITU, part of the UN, has been looking around for new territory ever since handing out telephone numbers – its earlier job – became passé. Its reasoning is that the resources that make the Internet work – domain names mapped to IP addresses – are just like telephone numbers and the UN should be in charge. The problem is that the ITU’s approach is strictly top-down: Only governments get to vote.
The risk of putting the ITU in charge of the names and numbers of the Internet is that civil society concerns – like freedom of speech – would have no place in ITU’s deliberations. Because names and numbers are one of the very few places where chokepoint control over speech and commerce can be exercised, it has been essential to the Internet’s growth and flourishing that they be made available without content-related conditions.
The U.S., reasoning that openness leads to growth and domestic productivity, put names and numbers under the authority of a private-sector organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. Just like Internet standard-setting organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), ICANN operates by consensus. Its consensus process takes a while, but it brings together government representatives, businesspeople, academics, and individuals. (I was a member of ICANN’s Board of Directors from 2005-2008.)
The US has been a good steward for names and numbers from the beginning, resisting pressures to tweak the system in favor of its businesses’ own interests. And the current administration strongly supports the ICANN model of governance. (I was a special assistant to President Obama for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at the beginning of the administration.) As Lawrence Strickling, head of the agency within the Department of Commerce that has responsibility for the administration’s relationship with ICANN said in March of 2011,
The United States government is absolutely committed to the multistakeholder process as an essential strategy for dealing with Internet policy issues, particularly when compared to the alternative of more traditional top-down regulatory processes.
Strickling is talking about more than names and numbers. ICANN is a petri dish, an experiment in governance, that relies on a multi-stakeholder, non-governmental approach. This is novel, but this is also the best strategy we – anyone – has come up with when it comes to Internet policy. It’s the open, participatory model that made the Internet work from the beginning and has made the Internet the global platform for speech and commerce.
The problem is that the multistakeholder approach isn’t itself written down in any treaty, and Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa (among other countries) are pushing for UN approval to assert greater control over the Internet. They see the Internet as a threat to their stability. Within their own governments, foreign affairs civil servants are controlling Internet policy who may not understand the technology of the Internet but know that their bosses don’t like criticism.
Right now, there’s a skirmish within the US that is threatening the entire global multi-stakeholder, Internet-like approach to Internet content. Unfortunately, a host of US businesses who don’t understand what’s at stake are picking a shortsighted fight that could, in the long run, be extremely destructive of the Internet’s future.
ICANN has spent years – many years – working to introduce competition into the namespace. After nearly 50 comment periods and wide global participation, ICANN will be opening a new generic top-level-domain (gTLD) program in January of 2012. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) doesn’t like the idea of new names, and is attacking ICANN’s processes and credibility – even though ANA actually participated in the process. The ANA has also called on the USG to stop ICANN from opening up new top level domains.
Here’s the thing: ICANN shouldn’t be told by Congress or the USG generally what to do. That’s the point of the multi-stakeholder model. No one government or group of governments is in charge. And the point of consensus as a rule for decisions is that once a decision is made, it’s made; the consensus process only works if there’s no exit valve. On the other hand, ICANN should calm down all the fervor by saying it will open up, say, 50 names in the next year and carefully evaluate how things have gone after that. ICANN needs to show that it’s a professional, well-run organization.
But to attack ICANN and cause the USG to step in plays directly into the ITU’s plans. It can then accuse ICANN of acting only in the interests of the United States. It can persuade a host of nations to join in a call for government control of Internet resources around the world. And that would be bad for all of us and for generations to come.
Susan Crawford is a professor at Cardozo Law School in New York City and a columnist for Bloomberg View. She served as Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (2009) and co-led the FCC transition team between the Bush and Obama administrations. For calendar 2012, Ms. Crawford will be the (Visiting) Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School.