UN to Consider Future of Internet Governance Forum

“If any subject is dull and uninteresting, it is IG or Internet Governance.” But actually, it is an issue, “gaining in importance. It is an issue that from the beginning has been very controversial,” explained Sha Zukang, the United Nations Under-Secretary General in charge of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, as he opened a briefing for UN member nations and others who were interested in the issue of whether or not the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) should be continued.(1)

In order to understand the issue of Internet Governance, and the context in which the IGF was created, it is important to know some of the history of the Internet. The development of the Internet was international from its very beginning, but much of the funding and leadership for that development came from the US government.(2) US computer scientists, engineers and graduate students had substantial roles in that development, and the US government maintained over all management of it.

For the first two decades of the development of the Internet, from 1973 to 1995, the US government maintained this development as a public and academic development. By 1995, however, the US government privatized its portion of the Internet’s infrastructure. It never gave up, however, its overall management and control, of the critical functions of the Internet.

At the World Summit for an Information Society (WSIS) meeting held by the UN in November, 2005 in Tunis, an important issue raised was the desire of nations for a more international form of control or governance over these the critical resources — the domain name system, the IP addressing system, and the port numbers of the Internet. (3) The US, however, was not willing to give up its control. The recent briefing on Tuesday, March 30 at UN headquarters in New York, was held in the context of this background.

The issue underlying the question of Internet governance, Mr Sha explained, is the issue of who will control the critical resources of the Internet. “Those who use it should have a say,” he maintained.

In one of his prior positions as the Ambassador for China at the UN, Mr Sha said he had been someone with very strong views on the issue, and one of the earliest to raise the issue at the UN.

In his current capacity, as part of the UN Secretariat, he explained, he now has the obligation to raise issues for the UN member nations so they can decide for themselves.

Some of the context provided later in the meeting by the delegate from Norway described what led to the decision to create the IGF. Many member nations of the UN had gone to the 2005 Tunis WSIS meeting determined to have a more broadly based means of control over the critical resources of the Internet, but they had to concede at this meeting in Tunis that they could not overcome the opposition by the US. Their goal of changing the unilateral and exclusive control over the domain name system to a more international form of control wasn’t achievable at that time. Instead of having any actual control over these resources, the outcome of the Tunis WSIS meeting was to create the IGF as a “platform for multi-stakeholder dialogue.” The IGF was to meet once each year for five years to facilitiate this dialogue. The IGF is an annual forum held for discussion purposes only

Mr Sha listed the four previous and one upcoming IGF annual meetings since the 2005 WSIS meeting. Though the forum was only a place for talking, with no power to make or implement decisions, it functioned, he said, to support discussion among those who could afford to attend the meetings.

Among the problems though, was the serious absence of participants from developing countries, who weren’t able to afford the travel costs to attend. The result was that most of the participants, Mr Sha noted, were from the developed world.

Another problem was that the real issue of Internet Governance, who would manage the critical resources of the Internet, was not within the scope of what the IGF was allowed to consider.

After five years of experience with the IGF, Mr Sha explained, the UN is to do a review. As part of this review, the Secretary General is to present his recommendations about whether the IGF should be continued and on what basis.(4)

When the floor was opened for discussion, the delegate from Yemen, Abdullah Alsaidi, representing the “Group of 77 and China”, was the first to speak. He offered five recommendations. (5) These included:

1. That the decision about the continuation of the IGF should be made by the General Assembly in its next session (the 65th Session).

2. That the IGF review should take place every two or three years after that, instead of waiting for another five or more years.

3. That in the future the IGF should focus on how to deal with significant policy issues, such as helping to change the “unilateral control of critical Internet resources.”

4. That the IGF should focus on measures “enhancing access to the Internet.”

5. That there be an implementation of the WSIS Tunis Outcome Agreement “to maximize the participation of developing countries in decisions regarding Internet Governance” so that these reflect the interests of these countries, especially with regard to development and capacity building.

The Yemen Ambassador proposed that the IGF continue to operate under the auspices of the United Nations, but in a reformed form.

The issue raised by a few of the other nations that spoke, including the US, France and the United Kingdom, was whether the decision to be made on the continuation of the IGF should be delegated to a smaller forum, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD). (6) This UN Committee meets twice a year in Geneva and is composed of 43 member nations.

Mr Sha said he had checked with the legal department at the UN. The issue could be discussed in the CSTD, but the decision had to be made by the whole of the General Assembly, which includes all the 192 member nations of the United Nations.

Another question raised was whether a draft version of the Recommendations of the Secretary General about the continuation of the IGF could be provided to the CSTD for their May meeting. Mr. Sha said it could be, but that it could only be available in English by that time, not in the other five official languages of the UN. If there was no objection from other nations, he would be willing to make the English language draft available for the CSTD meeting. The nations that spoke encouraged him to make a draft copy available for the CSTD meeting.

The briefing ended with the understanding that the decision on the continuation of the IGF would be made by the 192 member states of the UN during the 65th session of the UN General Assembly which begins in mid September 2010.

The briefing reflected the concern that had also been raised at the UN during a second committee meeting a few months earlier. The summary record of the 23rd meeting of the 2nd Committee meeting at the end of October, reports that Brazil described how it participated in and welcomed the IGF, and “it was time to reflect on its future….The building of a multilateral, transparent, and democratic regime for Internet governance with the participation of all, should be given a priority on the United Nations Agenda.” Though the progress made by the IGF was remarkable, the Brazilian delegate said, the current arrangement of how the domain name system and other critical resources of the Internet were managed “did not change the unilateral and exclusive nature of controls over the root directory of the domain name system…..Broadly speaking,” Brazil concluded that, “issues of voice and participation of Governments and multilateral organizations matters relating to the Internet governance regime remain unresolved.” (7)

Notes

1. Briefing by the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Society Affairs on “Matters related to the continuation of the Internet Governance Forum” (organized by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)), from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in Conference Room 2 (NLB), Journal of the United Nations, Tuesday, March 30, 2010, No. 2010/60, p. 6.

2. Ronda Hauben, “Returning Internet Governance to the People“, Ohmynews International, November 24, 2004.

3. Ronda Hauben, “WSIS Proves a Summit of Unsolved Solutions,” OhmyNews International, November 28, 2005.

See also Ronda Hauben, “Who Will Control the Internet Infrastructure?”, OhmyNews International, October 3, 2005.

4.”We ask the UN Secretary-General to examine the desirability of the continuation of the Forum, in formal consultation with Forum participants, within five years of its creation, and to make recommendations to the UN Membership in this regard.” (ITU, “WSIS Outcome Documents, December 2005, p. 84)

5. Formed in June 1964, there are currently 133 states that are part of the G77. The G77 is described at the G77 web site as “the largest intergovernmental organization of developing states in the United Nations, which provides the means for the countries of the South to articulate and promote their collective economic interests and enhance their joint negotiating capacity on all major international economic issues within the United Nations system, and promote South-South cooperation for development.”

6. The Commission on Science and Technology for Development has been functioning as a focal point for follow up activities from the WSIS Summits.

7. Summary Record of the 23rd Meeting held at the New York Headquarters of the Second Committee on Wednesday, 28 October, 2009. at 10 am. Agenda Item 50 “Information and Communication Technologies for Development”, General Assembly, Sixty-fourth session, A/C.2/64/SR/23, p. 8.
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