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How should the internet be run? Now that we know that the U.S. and its partners have largely co-opted the network of networks as a surveillance tool, the question of the internet’s governance is at the top of many people’s agendas. An international commission launched in January to investigate the topic, and Brazil will convene a conference in April to do the same. There are other such gatherings on the horizon, too.
And now we know roughly what stance (PDF) the European Union will take as these discussions ensue. On Wednesday European Commission digital chief Neelie Kroes unveiled a list of centrist proposals for, as she put it, “redrawing the global map of internet governance.”
“Europe must contribute to a credible way forward for global internet governance. Europe must play a strong role in defining what the net of the future looks like,” she said in a statement. “Our fundamental freedoms and human rights are not negotiable. They must be protected online.”
So, what are the EU’s proposals?
The internet is generally decentralized, but some of its core functions still run out of the U.S. — don’t forget that the internet originally spun out of American defence research. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the most important organization in this regard.
ICANN manages things like the top-level domain (TLD) system — .com, .net and so on – and IP address space allocation. It used to do so purely on behalf of the U.S. government, but in 2009 ICANN gained a degree of independence, adopting a multi-stakeholder model. These days the organization has offices in Istanbul, Singapore, Beijing, Brussels and Montevideo, and has started to allow TLDs in a variety of international scripts.
However, key functions, specifically the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), still run out of the U.S. and are at least perceived as being partly under U.S. control. So this is the first point on the EU’s list: “Establishment of a clear timeline for the globalisation of ICANN and the ‘IANA functions’.”
Then there’s the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which the United Nations set up in 2006 as an international talking-shop. The second point on the EU’s list is for the IGF to be strengthened.
However, Kroes’s office also said in an emailed statement that the Commission wants to “reject a United Nations or governmental takeover of internet governance” – so no return to the debates of 2012, where Russia, Saudi Arabia and others wanted the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a U.N. agency, to more-or-less take over the internet.
“Some are calling for the International Telecommunications Union to take control of key internet functions. I agree that governments have a crucial role to play, but top-down approaches are not the right answer. We must strengthen the multi-stakeholder model to preserve the Internet as a fast engine for innovation.”
The big problem with the ITU takeover idea was, and is, that there is profound disagreement among powerful nations as to how free the internet should be. As Edward Snowden’s revelations have shown, there’s probably no country out there that can truly claim the moral high ground, but there does remain a vast chasm between, say, China’s mania for censorship and the U.S. principles of free speech.
The European Commission announced plans for a Global Internet Policy Observatory (GIPO) back in May last year, as a way of monitoring policies around the world. GIPO is part of the action plan announced on Wednesday, as is a (presumably global) “review of conflicts between national laws or jurisdictions” – a messy situation to assess if there ever was one.
Apart from that, the EU’s standpoint package includes a “commitment to creating a set of principles of Internet governance to safeguard the open and unfragmented nature of the internet,” and more stuff about transparency and maintaining the “stability, security and resilience” of the internet.
In summary, what the EU is proposing here isn’t particularly revolutionary – ICANN is already globalizing, though not as fast as some may like, and Kroes’s antipathy towards an ITU-led approach is also well-established. It seems Europe wants everyone to have a say, but also wants to keep less freedom-oriented countries from having too much influence.
As Kroes’s office made clear in its email, the EU position is “firmly at the center” of the governance debate. This standpoint will add weight to that center – now let’s see what emerges at the fringes.