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Internet governance: who will take the helm?

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The debate on Internet governance almost reduced the first World Summit on the Information Society last December to anarchy. But what exactly is Internet governance?

Last week, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ran a workshop in Geneva - the first in a series of events trying to come to grips with this slippery issue.

Take 200 Internet experts, including such celebrities as TCP/IP co-inventor Bob Kahn, throw them into a room to discuss the subject. And what do you get? Not even an agreement on a definition of Internet governance. This now falls to a task force to be set up by UN secretary general Kofi Annan in preparation for WSIS II in Tunis in 2005.

The lack of a clear understanding of what needs fixing on the Internet worries the likes of Daniel Karrenberg, chief technologist of RIPE NCC - the non-profit organisation which allocates IP addresses to ISPs. He chaired a "who-is-doing-what" panel at Geneva. Adopting a nautical analogy, he said that if governance is about steering boats, then the supplies ships which provide naming and numbering services were sailing along just fine. Other representatives from RIPE, ICANN and Centr - the Council of European National Top Level Domain Registries - agree with him.

The result of governments taking the wheel could be hampered development, according to Bill Manning of EP.net - one the twelve root server operators. He agreed with his co-panellists when they asked for confidence in the industry's self-regulation. "We are not cowboys, we do not run hobby systems," he said. Business sector representatives also warned against heavy-handed regulatory approaches.

But this clubby atmosphere did not suit everyone. Nabil Kisrawi, representative of the Syrian Government, said: "We don't want to go to somebody sitting in the Netherlands to ask for an IP number. We don't like ICANN making decisions for Syria or the US State Department telling some other US department to tell ICANN what to do." Governance must not be compared to state regulation, he said.

Governments from the developing countries did not ask for regulation, but for an equal treaty under the UN. Nevertheless, Kisrawi and his colleague from Saudi Arabia pointed to GSM as evidence of how intergovernmental governance can be successful.

The exclusion of developing countries from ICANN - or their perceived exclusion - is one thing. But the major preoccupation of governments worldwide is to tame the Internet. Problems such as child pornography and spam clearly demand attention.

At the same time, governments, technologists and the business community are confronted with increasingly vociferous calls from end-user organisations and 'netizens' to be included in the debate. The WSIS was the first test of the UN's so-called 'multi-stakeholder approach' and some governments found this idea provocative. The Chinese representative at the ITU workshop, for example, insisted that governments must hold the reins.

In the end, the ITU workshop was something of an arena where different institutional approaches to Internet governance battled it out.

Some governments believe the ITU to be the logical regulator for the Internet - at least that's what William Drake, member of the WSIS Internet Caucus of the Civil Society, reckons. But he acknowledges that the traditional Internet community still views the ITU with suspicion. He personally favours the OECD's soft-law approach rather than the full-fat ITU intergovernmental strategy.

Markus Kummer, eEnvoy of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the man who led the complex ISIS negotiation on Internet governance, said: "No one talked about setting up one new super organisation."

He is in line to take the helm of the next vessel to negotiate the heavy seas of Internet governance - Kofi Annan's UN Task Force. The Swiss diplomat was certain about just one aspect of the voyage to Tunis: it's going to be a bumpy ride. ®

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