Governing the Net: 10 years on from WSIS

By on 11 Mar 2015

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Ten years have passed since the World Summit on the Information Society—better known as WSIS—agreed on a working definition of the concept of ‘Internet governance’. While a number of delicate political agreements were reached at this two-phased United Nations summit (2003 in Geneva and 2005 in Tunis), alongside that definition much was left unresolved.

WSIS brought together governments, civil society, private sector, intergovernmental and international organizations, as well as the technical community, in an important democratizing effort to encourage a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance matters.

One of the biggest controversies during WSIS was the topic of who controls the Internet and, more specifically, what’s the appropriate role of governments. Central to that debate was a governance model that had long been in place, the model for managing what WSIS labelled as ‘critical Internet resources’.

Of a number of private-sector-led non-profit organizations already involved in the governance of those resources, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), it was an organization with a special contractual relationship with the government of the United States, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), that most caught WSIS attention.

WSIS could have ended differently had the US government been ready at the time to relinquish its historical role as the central overseer of the management of the much-disputed ‘critical Internet resources’. Those basically comprised a series of technical functions—the ‘IANA functions’—contracted to and performed by ICANN. If that had happened, WSIS would have been remembered as a welcoming ceremony for the developing world to embrace the virtues of the prevalent multi-stakeholder Internet governance model.

Instead, WSIS left most of the emerging Internet nations unconvinced about the exclusive role of the US government and skeptical of the existing private-sector-led Internet governance model. WSIS also left its key organizer, the United Nations, with the unpleasant realization that its state-centric governance system would not serve as an alternative. And that’s how, many years after Tunis, the international debate on Internet governance following WSIS got stuck: trying to solve the issue of ‘critical Internet resources’, instead of making progress on more substantive Internet policy topics, for example, in the realm of security, human rights or development.

At the time of WSIS, ICANN was structurally incomplete and inadequately funded, far from ready to perform the IANA functions without government oversight. Also at that time, the US government, operating in the aftermath of 9/11 and with much uncertainty about how the Internet was going to play-out internationally, chose as its strategy for WSIS to re-assert its exclusive role over the IANA functions and postpone indefinitely the possibility of ICANN becoming independent or international.

During the long decade that followed WSIS, more than two billion new users joined the Internet worldwide, and a restructured ICANN multiplied its net assets fifty-fold. The US government then came to reconsider its WSIS position. In March 2014, the US Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) finally announced its intention to transition its historical oversight role of the IANA functions. But for that to happen, ICANN was required to convene the global multi-stakeholder community to propose a transition plan—a plan that should maintain the security and stability of the Internet and would not replace NTIA’s role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.

There was an overwhelmingly positive response from the global Internet community to the NTIA’s announcement. Within a couple of months, a process to develop the transition plan was agreed, followed by a careful distribution of work according to each of the main IANA functions. In less than 10 months, two out of three community tracks completed their work. The IP-addressing communities of the five RIRs converged to produce a plan for the Internet number resources. The IETF community also produced a plan for the technical protocol parameters. At this moment in time, the Internet domain names community within ICANN is working hard to complete their proposal associated with the root zone management function. In parallel, a separate process was established to review and reinforce ICANN’s accountability, an output that will be added to the final plan to be presented to NTIA, optimistically, before the end of September when the current IANA contract’s due to expire.

More than 10 years have been devoted to reconciling the WSIS predicament of ‘critical Internet resources’, the most debated subject in Internet governance since its inception. The rapid pace at which resolutions on this subject are unfolding has no precedent. Thousands of different views have been discussed, aggregated and compiled in an open, bottom-up and self-organized fashion. That enormous amount of work in such a short time, lead by the global Internet community, is a clear indication that the multi-stakeholder Internet governance model works well. It always did—by original design.

This post was first published on the ASPI Blog.

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