On not giving the clock to the monkey

This morning’s Observer column.

Given that WCIT-12 is being seen by some as a conspiracy in which Russia, China, Iran and other repressive regimes use the ITU as a Trojan horse to begin the process of bringing the internet under adult supervision, you can see why people are becoming agitated about it. Secretive horse-trading between governments is not what created the internet. Cue Google’s efforts to launch a global campaign involving internet users. “A free and open world depends on a free and open internet” declares the front page of the campaign website. Which is true, and the fact that Google’s prosperity likewise depends on that selfsame net doesn’t undermine its veracity. “But not all governments support the free and open internet,” it continues. And “some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting in December to regulate the internet. Add your voice in support of the free and open internet.”

Right on! As we ageing hippies say. The basic complaint is that while an outfit like the ITU, whose voting members are all nation states, might be OK for deciding the allocation of international dialling codes, it’s completely inappropriate to allow it to regulate the internet. The argument is that entrusting the governance of the network to an organisation in which Robert Mugabe’s vote counts for as much as the UK’s would be like giving a delicate clock to a monkey.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a serious problem here. The old adage — if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it — isn’t entirely helpful. The difficulty is that the present system of Internet governance — which, for largely historical reasons, gives the US an unduly large role in Internet governance — works pretty well. But now that the Net is a genuinely global system, then it’s getting harder and harder to justify. Given that the main system for international governance that states recognise is the UN, then it’s understandable that they would turn to a UN agency — the ITU — to take on the governance task. But that’s misguided for several reasons, only one of which I had room for in the column: that UN agencies are states-dominated and therefore top-down decision-making institutions. Other good reasons are that: the ITU is essentially a technical-standards organisation, not a governance one — and governance is about freedom, human rights and politics; government-dominated organisations tend to be secretive rather than open; and the RFC-IETF method for discussing and deciding on Internet technical issues has an impressive track record.

So whatever the question is, the ITU is not the answer. The problem is that those who dislike — or are rightly fearful of — it need to come up with a more imaginative solution that meets some demanding criteria. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Respect, preserve and enhance the openness of the Net
  • Protect the network’s integrity and technical effectiveness
  • Prevent the Balkanisation of the network
  • Ensure that technical decisions about the network are made on technological and not political or ideological grounds
  • Increase the availability of the Internet to the poor people of the world
  • Embody governance principles which do not privilege any one country or bloc
  • And they’re just for starters.