This morning, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes released the EU’s long anticipated response to the seismic changes in Internet governance caused by the Snowden revelations. In six hundred words, it throws down the gauntlet at United States over control of the Internet for the third time in fifteen years. This time it just might work.
Last October, the technical bodies that coordinate the Internet released the Montevideo Statement. Implying that trust in the Internet’s American stewardship had been fatally damaged by the Snowden revelations, the I*s (‘i-stars; Internet organisations) called for “the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing” and for the overall improvement of global multi-stakeholder Internet governance.
It was an astonishing development. For the US-born ICANN, ISOC, ARIN and IETF to say the US government’s monopoly of control over the Internet root must end was a break few of us saw coming. It didn’t stop there. Within days, ICANN’s CEO, Fadi Chehade, announced that ICANN and the Brazilian government would organize a meeting in early 2014 to start figuring out how this transfer of control might work.
ICANN and Brazil are a union put together by a very canny matchmaker. For Brazil, it was a chance for Delma Rousseff, still smarting over NSA surveillance of her personal communications and with a presidential election coming up in late 2014, to poke a stick in America’s eye (practically a national pastime). Alone amongst its global peers, the Brazilian government spotted and grabbed the chance to look iconoclastic and courageous, seizing the initiative in what had quickly become a global Internet power vacuum. (Why a vacuum? The US and UK’s fatal refusal to respond publicly to the rest of the world’s anger and fear of their pervasive monitoring: CT)
For ICANN, although the story of its arranged marriage with Brazil has changed as many times as Fadi has told it, the partnership is a way to grab some autonomy and symbolic distance from its smothering and dysfunctional relationship with the US Department of Commerce. It also bigs up ICANN’s status as two hundred person California nonprofit that just happens to be best buddies with one of the biggest economies in the world.
Before the Montevideo statement, Internet governance had rumbled on in the same way for a decade: the US and its allies staunchly defendied the status quo; Russia, China and a bunch of countries they’d bullied or paid off made noise and occasionally accumulated victories at the International Telecommunication Union; and the large swathe of middling and middle income countries in between batted haplessly back and forward between them. Once a year, everyone would gather and complain at the Internet Governance Forum, a toothless talking shop tolerated and attended by everyone precisely because it has no power.
Europe had tried twice before to move the US away from its controlling grip on the domain name system. First, before the creation of ICANN, when the EU’s late 1990s suggestion that the United Nations get involved was slapped down. Later, just before the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, the EU suggested a purely intergovernmental cooperation model to replace the Department of Commerce’s contractual control of the root. That didn’t fly, either.
Nonetheless, the EU went on thinking of itself as the honest broker between the US – which brooked no challenge to its historic dominance – and Russia et al – who reflexively disliked the open Internet and spotted a chance to hobble it with the added benefit of curbing America’s global influence. What the EU achieved with its stance is hard to pin down; basically more of the same.
The only thing that’s changed in Brussels is a largely rhetorical shift from inter-governmentalism to multi-stakeholderism. The EU started off saying government should sit down around the table and sort things out, and more recently has shifted to saying the private sector, civil society and the technical community should be invited, too. But, as Kevin Murphy points out, the Commission’s true love for the ICANN multi-stakeholder model only goes so far as liking the decisions it agrees with and insisting on a right of veto over everything else. For the Commission, government stakeholders are still an awful lot more equal than the other ones. And so it would have continued, if those pesky Brazilians hadn’t stuck their nose in.
The EU wasn’t just caught on the back foot by the I* Montevideo statement and the subsequent Brazil meeting announcement. Europe’s raison d’etre in Internet governance as the diplomatic force maintaining an ideological balance between Internet extremes was destroyed. Being an honest broker in a struggle between a dominant power that just wants to keep the status quo versus a host of multi-hued malcontents basically just means upholding a flawed balance. There’s no future in it.
Brazil grabbed the ball when no one else even realized it was in play. (Probably via a sneaky pass from ICANN with a hand-off in Uruguay) Then everyone else rushed home to celebrate victory, drown defeat and train for the next match, while Neelie and co. stood muddy and alone in the empty stadium whining that the winners were offside.
So today’s announcement can be read as an attempt by the EU to look like it’s still driving the agenda, even though it never really was. It’s the concluding act of a lame duck commissioner who has disappointed in both her terms. And it’s raddled with the customary non-sequiturs that cast pet Commission projects as ‘concrete actions’ that will drive brave reforms. Put it this way, if you have to put out a press release saying you are the honest broker – the kind that work silently but manically behind the scenes to stitch the last-minute, life-saving deal together – then you’re almost certainly not one.
None of this means we should discount what the EU has to say. The things it asks for now seem sensible and even necessary; a timeline for globalizing ICANN/IANA, strengthening the IGF, keeping the Internet open and unfragmented and its decision-making accountable, transparent and inclusive.
Although Europe is speaking from a position of weakness, these proposals are powerful, and shared by more people every day.