Internet governance after Busan: playing the long game

Byron Holland provides an update mid-way through ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan

As you might imagine, I’ve been following the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference very closely. It was built up to be the great showdown of our time – the pro-‘free and open’ Internet in one corner (comprised for the most part of developed and democratic nations); in the other corner a contingent of totalitarian regimes bent on a fractured, censored Internet – a near battle royale for control of one of the greatest communications tool the world has ever seen.

In fact, the lead up to the past few ITU events has been more akin to an over-the-top sporting event  than to meetings of an international, bureaucratic institution. Sometimes the conferences live up to the hype. WCIT 12 ended in a vote that led to months of bad feeling between countries that signed or didn’t sign the new International Telecommunication Regulations. However, the current news out of Busan paints the Plenipotentiary as a non-event, at least by its midpoint. Where the hype may have been well-deserved, it appears that the main event won’t live up to expectations.

There were four main Internet-related resolutions going into the Plenipot. One was very broad, on IP-based networks. Another was on internationalizing domain names, and yet another was on IPv6 transition. The one most directly related to Internet governance referenced “international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet and the management of Internet resources, including domain names and addresses.” Of the four resolutions, it is the final one that caused the most concern in the Internet governance world.

Where general governance ends and where public policy starts can be a hazy area and the cause of a lot of the debates between governments. This is where the ‘ITU taking over the Internet’ statements of alarm come from. Apart from the resolutions on the table in Busan, there were proposals that would have seen the ITU move further into what many, including me, think is more properly the arena of multi-stakeholder governance, but what some governments think is more properly the area of multilateral public policy-making.

There was a proposal to have ITU become an IP address registry. There were proposals to have ITU develop international laws and policy on online surveillance to prevent sovereign rights of states being violated (this being the first major ITU conference since the Snowden revelations). There was also a proposal for ITU to investigate a new architecture for the future Internet. All of these proposals alarmed various sectors of the Internet world to different degrees.

In the end, however, rather uncontroversial resolutions were developed by the drafting group to move forward to a vote by the ITU plenary. Does this mean that Plenipotentiary won’t have any affect on the Internet as we know it? The answer to that is ‘yes and no’. It’s true that the Busan resolutions won’t have a direct effect on the Internet once the Plenipot winds up on November 7. However, this does not mean that certain governments will give up on the proposals they couldn’t get through in Busan.

We are likely to see them crop up again at another ITU or intergovernmental meeting in the not-too-distant future. There is no doubt that the so-called ‘Indian proposal’ to develop a more secure and trustworthy Internet will resurface, as Member States were encouraged on Tuesday to take up the issues raised by the proposal and discuss them in relevant fora.

Debate on what Internet issues are appropriate for ITU to discuss will also be a hot topic on a yearly basis, following a decision have the ITU's Council Working Group on International Internet-related Public Policy Issues (CWG-Internet) decide at its first meeting of each year what it will discuss and conduct public consultations on for the rest of that year. This means that while new Internet issues may not have made it into the Busan resolutions, they could make it into ITU’s agenda via the first CWG-Internet meeting held each January or February in Geneva. In other words, we now have even more meetings to keep an eye on and even more consultation processes to write responses to.

This year’s Plenipot also saw the election of new ITU leadership. Former Deputy Secretary General Houlin Zhao was elected, unopposed, to the post of Secretary General. Canada’s lone candidate in the ITU’s election, Bruce Gracie, lost out to Malcolm Johnson for the position of Deputy Secretary General. Zhao has made assurances that he has no intention of changing the relationship between ITU and the Internet world, and that he will continue Dr. Toure’s efforts to work in cooperation with entities in the Internet space. Johnson, on the other hand, does not have a stellar history of working collaboratively with the Internet community, so his election has not been welcomed by some on the inside of the Internet governance world.

Time will tell, however. History shows us that Deputy Secretary Generals generally stay in the shadows and let the Secretary Generals lead. If this continues to be the case, Johnson’s election likely will not result in any great change in the way ITU’s leadership will approach their engagement with key Internet organizations.

The Plenipot isn’t over yet. There’s still opportunity for fireworks during the final week, though that’s highly unlikely. And while there is little for those of us on the ‘free and open’ Internet to bemoan, Busan will end without a clear victor. Those who would minimize any declarations that there are states that are using fora like the Plenipot to extend their reach over the Internet will use the outcomes from Busan to support their position. However, I think Busan will end in a tie – while there were no overt actions that extend the ITU’s reach over the Internet, the field has been set for future plays.

We’re in a long game, and I’m not sure we’re leading yet.

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