FC: Internet governance: herding cats and sacred cows

Rohit Khare (rohit@fdr.ICS.uci.edu)
Tue, 13 Oct 1998 16:02:24 -0700

Date: Tue, 13 Oct 1998 11:51:23 +0200
From: Robert Shaw <robert.shaw@itu.int>
To: declan@well.com
Subject: Internet governance: herding cats and sacred cows


Your readers might be interested in this talk I gave at
INET 98.


Robert Shaw <robert.shaw@itu.int>
Head a.i., IED/Advisor, Global Information Infrastructure
International Telecommunication Union <http://www.itu.int>
Place des Nations, 1211 Geneva, Switzerland

------------------------------------------------------------------ Internet governance: herding cats and sacred cows Robert Shaw* Version 1.1 Based on talk given at INET 98, Geneva, Switzerland July 22, 1998

A few days ago, I gave a talk at the ITU to a group of students on a European telecommunications summer school program. The pre- arranged topic of my talk was "Internet governance". Of course, I started my talk by saying that I hadn't the slightest idea what the term "Internet governance" meant. You would think I might. During the last couple of years, I, along with a current committee of around thirteen people, have been involved in what can only be described as a three-ring circus: an attempt to overhaul the administration of the Internet generic top level domains like .com, .net, and .org. When a smaller first committee, the Internet Ad Hoc Committee or IAHC started this work in 1996, I doubt that any of the IAHC had ever heard of the term Internet governance. In fact, we were very careful to limit the scope of our activity and would have been accused of absurd hubris to equate this work with the much grander sounding "Internet governance". Someone once said "trying to govern the Internet is like trying to herd cats: it just doesn't work". And as someone else noted - "cats are clearly much smarter than dogs: the proof is that you could never tie eight cats together and get them to pull a sled in one direction". One could argue that what we need is a few dogs pulling in the same direction. But, of course, on the Internet, no one knows if you're a dog. I, along with another rotating group of committee members working on this problem, have experienced enough bizarre characters, self- proclaimed representatives of organizations that are nothing more than a few web pages, and conspiracy theories to last a lifetime. We've been sued, attacked in thousands of emails on mailing lists, compared to communists against free enterprise, claimed to be lackeys of foreign powers, or part of a secret plot to move the Internet to Switzerland. No motive that we could possibly have is too base. No possible accusation has been left unsaid. I've read enough false press reports about our work to forever distrust quasi-real-time web journalism. Indeed, who has time to check sources when you need to publish next hour? We've been accused of selling out to the trademark community and at the same time not doing enough to help protect trademarks in domain names. We've been chastised because we haven't figured out a way to put principles of free speech into domain name administration [personally, I would have thought that the Internet offered plenty of opportunities for free speech without having to embed in its naming infrastructure]. We've been told that we're progressing too fast - and too slow. And, of course, the incumbent administrator of gTLDs operating under a five year contract that should have ended on September 30, 1998 [now extended to September 2000], is, shall we say, not particularly keen on any plan that threatens a monthly multi- million dollar revenue stream or their market capitalization. Basically we're making everyone unhappy which ironically may mean that we've reached an equal compromise between wildly divergent points of view. Unbelievably, it just seems to just get worse and worse. When we started our work in 1996, only a few people outside the Internet technical or service community cared about domain names. Now almost every week, there is a new trade association, advocacy group, trademark lawyer, cyber-libertarian, academic or bored teenager with a 15 dollar a month dial-up account who surfaces and decides that they too need to join in and add their two cents to this topic. We're "stakeholders" too they say. "Our views also need to be represented". The first problem is that each time these new people surface, they suggest the same unworkable solutions that have been discussed to death and long ago put to bed - so a great deal of time and effort is spent rehashing covered ground. The second problem is that with a shift of focus to Internet governance, there are many who, for whatever reason, interpret self-governance as a wonderful opportunity for self-promotion. To those I issue you this warning: there is no glory here. It is a thankless job. What some people have forgotten is that the urgency of our original work came from the Internet operational community. When we started, there was a very real danger of the domain name system fragmenting into multiple roots which most believe would have been a terrible disaster for the Internet. The consequence would be equivalent to dialing the international direct dialing code 41 and being routed to Switzerland one day and Kenya the next. Fortunately, this danger now seems to have somewhat faded. When we prepared our plan, we issued a request for comments and synthesized thousands of ideas into what we thought was the best compromise solution. We thought that the force of good ideas and sound principles would be sufficient to get to the holy grail of consensus and move forward. We issued more requests for comments to tune our work. We attended scores of meetings to meet with people and discuss what they were seeking. We provided almost daily updates of information on our web site so that people could understand what we were doing. We maintained mailing lists of thousands of subscribers. How this debate has progressed into a debate on Internet governance has been totally surprising to others and myself in the committees working on this. True, this is a complex subject and touches upon difficult subjects such a management of international resources, competition policy and domain name/intellectual property disputes. But how and when did we make the leap to the grand sounding Internet governance? Even in the US Government's recently released "White Paper" on domain name system administration, it uses the grandiose term "Internet governance". The White Paper "policy statement" is a classic study in ambiguity. As all graduate literature students know, the well- known authority on ambiguity is William Empson, a British literary critic who wrote a very popular book in 1930 called the "Seven Types of Ambiguity". He defined ambiguity as "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language". Much of the White Paper is so ambiguous that the reader has no choice but to invent his or her own meanings. And this allows all parties to believe that their particular views have been endorsed - which may be politically astute - but progress always requires moving from platitudes to the specific and there is no reason to believe that any more consensus will emerge than in the past. There are hundreds of tough decisions to make that the White Paper punts to a new "non-profit" corporation Board of Directors. Today's politically correct mantra is that the private sector should lead. But without details, we're not sure what this says. What does "private sector" mean? Isn't the current administrator of the Internet generic top level domains from the private sector? So what's the problem? The problem is that they, like any company in control of a valuable global resource, will obviously try to maximize profits for their shareholders. Public interest issues, what a civil society normally invests in governments to protect, are missing. Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig argues in his insightful essay "Governance"[1], how infectious and politically correct is the idea that no government bodies, whether national or international, should have a role to play in regulating cyberspace. Remarking on the US government proposal to create a non-profit US corporation to set global policy for domain names, Lessig notes "We have lost the idea that ordinary government might work, and so deep is this thought that even the government doesn't consider the idea that government might have a role in governing cyberspace." But isn't this a paradox? That the birthplace of the Internet and the self-professed champion of democracy is promulgating its own disillusionment with the applicability of its own democratic processes for the Internet? Lessig concludes his essay with "In a critical sense, we are not democrats anymore. Cyberspace has shown us this, and it should push us to figure out why". So what are we? Ironically, the principles of democratic ideas are so ingrained in our collective beliefs that we're convinced that this is the best way to govern cyberspace. Everyday we read calls for a new widespread net democracy with voting by stakeholders (whoever that is). But is this really want we want? Why is it that one of the most successful paradigms of the post- industrial age, the Internet Engineering Task Force, avoids voting like the plague? And wasn't the Communications Decency Act passed virtually unanimously by popular vote in the US Congress but netizens everywhere rejoiced when it was overturned by the Supreme Court? Do we really want direct democracy for Internet governance? And if we do, in a world of private sector rule, where are the checks and balances that modern democracies have? You may have noticed that I have become a profound cynic about private-sector self-governance. Two years ago this wasn't true but after watching the self-interest of the private sector during the last two years, I've changed my mind. This is not reflective of some dark desire to regulate the Internet - it is just recognition of the reality of commercial forces. I'm reminded of the great liberal philosopher Adam Smith, who, more than two hundred years ago, said public monopolies are terrible. They are slow, bureaucratic, inefficient and so on. But he also added, private monopolies are all of this, and in addition, greedy. The bottom line is that the success of the Internet is a Pyretic victory - it has now become far too successful to be treated any different than the rest of society and the economy. The price of success is all the baggage and political correctness which has been hated by the Internet engineering community for so many years. The fact that the debates now have turned to Internet governance instead of the relatively arcane topic of domain name administration says a lot - our focus has changed to making sure that all the sacred cows are stroked and that they feel that their views are part of the process even if we get to exactly the same results. While this may eventually lead to progress, it will most certainly be a slow, bureaucratic, and inefficient progress - and one that has very little resemblance to what made the Internet what it is today.

_______________________________ * Advisor, Global Information Infrastructure, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva, Switzerland. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ITU or its membership. [1] http://cyber.harvard.edu/works/lessig/Ny_q_d1.pdf