Why we DON'T "stick to our knitting": auDA's role in the Internet Governance landscape

Posted by Paul Szyndler on 14 November 2014

Last Friday, following three weeks of dazzling diplomacy, the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference came to a conclusion in Busan, South Korea. For those unfamiliar with the event, the “Plenipot” is the ITU’s most significant gathering. It is held every four years and attracts thousands of bureaucrats and observers from across the globe. At the Plenipot, ITU members elect new office-bearers, set general policies and determine the Union’s strategic plans and activities for the next four years.

It is this last part that is of most interest to stakeholders in the Internet community as, since the 1998 Plenipot in Minneapolis, the ITU has gradually crafted a role for itself in the Internet Governance space. Successive Plenipotentiary meetings have been greeted with distrust and suspicion, and have delivered outcomes and instructions to the ITU that generally validate these fears.

If internet governance were a James Bond movie, ITU would be cast as the cat-stroking villain with an intricate and ambitious model laid out before her (we can always hope) plotting world domination through seizing control of global communications.

Sam Dickinson, The guardian.com

For example, the ITU plenary has previously passed a series of Internet-related resolutions (101, 102, 133 and 180 for fans of obscure detail) that define a role for the ITU in the coordination of IP-based networks, facilitating public policy development relating to domain names and the transition from IPv4 to IPv6, and managing internationalised domain names.

Every four years, these Resolutions are meticulously pored over by Member States, with every phrase and section analysed and debated. Agreed words are very powerful in inter-governmental fora, and the importance of such a granular and detailed debate should not be under-estimated.

This is where the fear and loathing comes in – the ITU is not a multi-stakeholder body. It is multi-national. It is a forum for governments and those of us (ccTLD managers, ICANN, civil society, business, academia) from the broader community that has successfully steered the technical and policy development of the Internet don’t have a seat at the table. Aside from lobbying our national governments and weaselling our way on to delegations, we cannot directly influence the direction of the ITU. This is why the recent Plenipotentiary was so significant, keenly followed and generally distrusted.

However, an interesting thing happened in Busan. While there was the usual level of debate around Internet issues, a far greater proportion of governments spoke in favour of the current multi-stakeholder model for Internet Governance. A far greater number of governments are now meaningfully engaged with our community, trust our processes and work with stakeholders to improve the current model, rather than re-invent it with national administrations in control. Far more governments get it.

Our Government, like Britain’s, is committed to freedom on and of[1] the Internet. That means the governance of the Internet should not be in the hands of any government or group or organisation of governments.

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, Minister for Communications. Chatham House May 2014

This was particularly evident at PP-14 when a bunch of wacky[2] Internet-related proposals were tabled from usual suspects such as Russia, the Arab States and India. These proposals would have significantly increased the ITU’s mandate but, instead of just being opposed by the U.S. and a handful of nations in Europe, many more Member States played a vocal role in ensuring these ideas did not proceed.

The increasing, collaborative engagement of governments was also evident at the 2014 Internet Governance Forum in Turkey, where Ambassadors and Ministers from a large number of countries including the U.S., U.K. and Brazil contributed their time and national positions. While still a body of the United Nations, the IGF is a far more evolved creature than the ITU, as it embraces the ideal that all stakeholders from the community should participate on equal footing. As we have done for many years, auDA was able to participate at the IGF as a representative of Australia’s technical community, and brought along a number of our own national “ambassadors” who contributed skills and knowledge in diverse areas such online child protection, health, regional development and legal reforms.

These ambassadors also helped drive our third annual Australian IGF in August. As with the global IGF, our national event provides an important forum for stakeholders to come together and help shape the future of the Internet. The auIGF is open and apolitical and allows key government decision makers to join with the community, listen to their views and ideas, and factor these into policy development.

But it’s not all good news. In 2015, we face a number of challenges to the status quo.

  • The UN will finalise a review of the World Summit on the Information Society, the difficult and highly-charged forum that concluded in 2005, hosted some of the most vicious debates on Internet Governance, and gave rise to the IGF.       
  • Working groups on Internet issues continue within the ITU, with membership limited to Member States.
  • Internet-related resolutions from the 2014 Plenipotentiary still assert that ITU has a leading role in Internet public policy issues, and do not expressly identify other key stakeholders by name.
  • September 2015 is the deadline signalled by the U.S. Government for it to transfer key Internet domain name functions to the global Internet multi-stakeholder community: but first the community must work together to develop an agreed model for the future.

The gradual thawing of relations between governments and the “traditional” Internet community is a cause for celebration, but also a call to action.

The utility of the “multi-stakeholder model” for Internet Governance has long been touted as a preferable alternative to governmental control. While originally a largely defensive position in response to potential take-over, it is now the established community philosophy and one that has garnered considerable political support. It is now time to engage meaningfully and ensure that the model continues to work.

In a roundabout way, I think this blog post has not only provided an update on recent international developments, but also served to answer the common question: “Why does auDA support the multi-stakeholder model and assume a prominent role in facilitating Internet Governance debate in Australia?”

If we “stuck to our knitting”, auDA would simply ensure the secure and stable operation of Australia’s .au namespace. In itself, this is an important and valuable role. However, we are equally responsible for facilitating engagement and debate on Internet issues - most notably via the auIGF - that not only provides value in itself, but also proves that the multi-stakeholder model works.

In 1998, fear of government takeover may have driven the community to bind together and create its own diverse, occasionally anarchic, model for Internet Governance. In 2014, some fears remain, but the real driver is the need to “talk-the-talk” and take action to make sure that structures for a free, open and interoperable Internet are retained. That, in a nut-shell, is why auDA so passionately plays its own small role in the Internet Governance debate, and why we will continue to do so in 2015 and beyond.



[1] Emphasis from the Minister’s original speech

 [2] This author’s expert opinion only