By Peng Hwa Ang
As I said in my address at the recent AoIR meeting, there is just no way to predict the outcomes of political debates. And so it has been a surprise to just about everyone involved in the process that the WSIS meeting decided to set up the Internet Governance Forum but also decided to leave oversight in the hands of the USA.
So what happened at the WSIS? Did the USA“win”, as the US media seemed to have portrayed? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions at the end of this.
To recap: there were two major issues for WSIS—internet governance and ICT4D (information communication technology for development). Of the two, ICT4D is the harder thing to do in practice because it entails real money. The big event for ICT4D was the US$100 laptop. Never mind that it had been talked about since 1998. Never mind that what was shown was a prototype that may not ever see mass production. Never mind that the cost of teaching the potential users will add substantially to the cost of the laptop. What was important was that there was something that could be handled, that looked serviceable if cheap, and that therefore seemed like something that the Third World could use. So much for ICT4D.
What was on the minds of the delegates was internet governance. For that, the delegates came three days early because the September PrepCom3 meeting could not agree after two weeks in Geneva. With the pressure of the WSIS deadline, an agreement was reached at Tunis.
The agreement, in a nutshell, says this: (1) there will be a light weight (meaning light overheads) forum to discuss internet governance but the forum will have no decision-making powers and (2) oversight of the internet root zone system will be left in the hands of ICANN and the US government.
So what happened to the China-Brazil-India and EU positions where there was to be a forum and where oversight was to be taken away from ICANN? Both positions were similar, differing in only whether the forum was to be under a UN agency or some other body.
Well, heavy-duty industrial strength lobbying made the difference. Industrial strength lobbying was required once the Department of Commerce came out with the strong statement that (a) there should not be one forum but multiple fora and that (b) oversight will remain under the US Government. Once those statements came out, and especially as they pre-empted the official WGIG Final Report, there was pushback from practically all the world’s governments. The only way to counter the pushback was to, well, lobby aggressively.
The most visible of the lobbying efforts was the ironic letter co-signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez that read in part: “We ask the EU to reconsider its new position on Internet governance and work together with us to bring the benefits of the information society to all.” (Google this, and it will show several news articles about the letter.) Ironic because not all who were supposed to benefit felt they “benefited”. One diplomat said that the letter amounted to intimidation.
Compounding the irony of the situation was that the UK could not help the US precisely because it (the UK) was the President of EU. It just would not do as President of the EU, essentially a coordination role, for the UK to bulldoze its view over the heads of the other nations. And so the UK was in the strange position of having to go against the US in its role as President of the EU even though it would have wanted to agree with the US.
The letter apparently had a significant impact in weakening the resolve of the EU.
Now the China-Brazil-India position had the support of many countries and also counted among its leaders Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Publicly, the spin against them was that these countries did not believe in freedom of expression. This was not an argument but name-calling. It is irrelevant what countries believe regarding freedom of expression because their own ability to force through issues would be limited by the fact that they were placing the forum under a UN agency. Agreements under these arrangements are made through consensus, which is even more powerful than freedom of expression: as long as there is even one objection, there can be no consensus and no agreement.
Behind the scenes, deals were cut with some of the countries to moderate the bloc. Here I have to point out, in the spirit of academic integrity and honesty, that I’m speculating, but not without basis. I’m led to believe that there was a deal made with Pakistan; there may have been deals made with Iran (do not push internet governance and we will not push nuclear arms inspection?). China meanwhile was and is trying to keep a low international profile for fear of the backlash on its trade deficit with the US. In fact, while WSIS was going on, US President George Bush was in China. In fact, of all the countries, the most surprising reaction was from the Chinese delegation, which through silence, acquiesced with the US position.
In the end, it came down to these bargaining chips: the forum and oversight. That is, Most of the Rest of the World (MRW) told the US: you cannot have both so pick what you really want to keep—forum or oversight. The US chose oversight and so left MRW with the forum.
The outcome is a mirror of the WGIG Report. WGIG agreed on the forum—light-weight, no decision-making powers. The WGIG sub-group that went into this agreed on the forum pretty quickly. The larger WGIG sub-group that discussed oversight got bogged down and never came up with one model. Instead, it emerged with four models.
Similarly, WSIS agreed on the forum but could not agree on one model. The Summit was stuck at exactly the same points where WGIG got stuck.
To be precise, the US did concede a key sticking point with Paragraph 63 of the Tunis Agenda: “Countries should not be involved in decisions regarding another country’s country-code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD).” This is to placate the concerns over the .IQ debacle where in essence, Iraq did not exist in cyberspace as its domain manager was in a US jail.
Would things have arrived at where they are without the strong lobbying from the USA?
Once the strong statements were made, it was impossible not to have pushback. And that in turn meant that lobbying was essential.
Probably the most nightmarish scenario that could have emerged would have been the creation of a parallel internet where the root zone system, assuming there would be one, was totally outside the influence of the USA. Fortunately, it was averted. Some commentators said that this scenario could not materialise because it was not a genuine threat—there is no technology for such a parallel internet universe.
Well, I think the USA was shrewder than that. It would have been unwise to give MRW the incentive and political will to even mull such a venture. If there is a lesson to learn about innovations on the internet, it is that many of those innovations were started on the fringes. And there is no telling what incentives and political will can achieve when coupled with resources that governments will deploy.
So to some extent, the outcome met everyone’s minimum objectives. For MRW, there is a forum and assurance that they have sovereignty over their own ccTLD; for the US, it still gets to keep oversight under ICANN and the Department of Commerce.
But this is not the end of the story. Both conceptually and operationally, it is impossible to draw a line between what the new forum can discuss—policy issues—and what it cannot—oversight issues. It reminds me of the story of King Canute trying to hold back the waves. Except in that case, King Canute was making the point that the waves cannot be held back. Unlike King Canute, the US negotiators seem to think they can. The end has yet to be.