Multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance

Civil society groups and web companies have joined together in opposing “takeover of internet governance” by the ITU.

internet users
More than 40 countries around the world restrict what internet users can access online [AFP]

The World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT, a convening of mostly government officials from member countries of the ITU – the Internet Telecommunications Union, a UN body – that will determine how the global internet is governed in the future, started in Dubai on December 3 and will continue till December 14, 2012.

The meeting has been the subject of controversy since as early as May, when leaked documents pertaining to WCIT were posted on WCITleaks, prompting fury from digital rights advocates. 

The documents, proposals for how the internet ought to be governed, show the extent to which certain countries are seeking more power over the internet. One proposal shows how a group of Arab countries is advocating strict identification of all internet users, while the Africa regional group is pushing for “harmonisation” amongst member states when it comes to the retention of data. And leaked Russian proposals suggest countries should have the right “to regulate the national internet segment”. 

Civil society groups and web companies have joined together in opposing what many perceive to be a takeover of internet governance by the ITU. If the UN body were to gain more control, those parties would be the biggest losers: the current governance structure is made up of a mix of organisations and companies which convene each year at the Internet Governance Forum, recently held in Baku, Azerbaijan. 


 ITU Dubai: Internet regulation in focus

Web giant Google has run what is perhaps the most prominent campaign against the proposals, recently launching a website encouraging internet users to pledge their belief in a “free and open web”: 

“A free and open world depends on a free and open internet. Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future. The billions of people around the globe who use the internet should have a voice.” 

The US government backs Google’s position that the current multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance should remain in place. 

In addition to objections to specific proposals, civil society groups object to the lack of transparency surrounding WCIT and the end of multi-stakeholderism that would occur if certain governments get their way. 

A campaign calling on transparency from the ITU and the inclusion of non-governmental groups in decision-making processes boasts support from hundreds of civil society groups from all over the world. 

While the outrage from such groups is palpable, there are others who see the issue as overblown. In a recent piece for Slate, Ryan Gallagher writes

“Given that there is such strong opposition to the handful of proposals related to content filtering and monitoring (including from the US government), there is a slim chance these measures will ultimately be adopted by the ITU. Any new regulations have to be arrived at by consensus, meaning, as the ITU’s secretary general has said, ‘whatever one single country does not accept will not pass’.” 

A review of global media appears to support Gallagher’s thesis. Even Russia’s Moscow Times seems doubtful that any significant changes will emerge from the WCIT, suggesting that the US opposition to proposals will stifle opposition. 

Gallagher goes on to point out that the bigger threat comes from national laws. Indeed, recent developments in Jordan, the Philippines, Russia, Iran, China and elsewhere demonstrate that central governance is not a prerequisite for governments to crack down on internet use. More than 40 countries around the world restrict what internet users can access online. But give those same governments control at the ITU, and they may end up influencing policies that affect users outside their national borders as well.

Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork