Internet bureaucracy needs more transparency
Imagine if the United States Congress passed resolutions based on the Speaker of the House simply “taking a feel” of the room and then declaring something as law. Preposterous? “I can see it in everybody’s eyes,” he might say. “I can feel it in the room. I know you all want to allow Texas to secede from the Union, so I’m gonna allow it.” Then he bangs the gavel.
It couldn’t happen here (or at least, we hope it couldn’t). But, in the world of Internet governance, this is exactly how things get done.
We tend to think of the Internet as self-running, a little chaotic, and lacking in any sort of accountability or decision-making process. While that may be true to some extent, there really are organizations, standards bodies, and government entities that make the Internet what it is, for better or worse. There are those of course, who argue against oversight, instead preferring to leave the Internet to be a completely organic creature.
In many ways, it is. It’s just chaotic enough to have an incredible amount of energy, and there are enough brilliant minds involved that contributions can be taken seriously and acted upon. The trick is to allow those brilliant minds to contribute, and there are those who would not allow it.
Let’s take a look behind the scenes. There is no central agency, or even a central agenda, for the Internet, but the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) do have at least a minor hand in Internet governance.
This week’s session of the WCIT saw chairman Mohammed Nasser Al Ghanim proposing a “Resolution to foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet”, which reinforces the ITU’s role in Internet governance, a role that has been under debate for some time. The idea of promoting growth of Internet sounds harmless enough, but as is the case with any bureaucracy, there are many minutiae involved to be hammered out, and this is where things get bogged down. Curiously, after much discussion at the meeting in Dubai, the chairman proclaimed, “I want the feel of the room, who is against this resolution,” and then declared that the majority was in favor. Strangely, the resolution reversed the chairman’s previous position that the ITU should not have a role in Internet governance.
The question of course, is whether taking the “feel” of a room constitutes an actual vote? As was noted immediately afterwards by the Spanish delegate, “I would like you to clarify whether the temperature you were taking was simply a taking of the temperature. Has it now been interpreted as a vote and had we known that it was a vote, we might very well have acted differently.”
There was in fact, no vote taken, even though Ghanim declared that the resolution had been adopted. Theoretically, the ITU makes decisions by consensus, and votes only when there is no consensus possible. A look at the transcript will show clearly that there was no consensus, with the United States and Saudi Arabia objecting, and several other points being taken by other delegates. In addition to the US and Saudi Arabia, several other delegates are dissatisfied with the results, and are refusing to sign the newly revised ITU treaty, including the UK, Canada, Denmark, Australia, and Czech Republic.
According to the Center for Democracy and Technology, despite the consensus-based tactics of ITU decision-making, the adoption of the resolution by “feel” was unprecedented, and some delegates—who may have opposed it—were not able to take a position before the session closed. The need for some governance of the Internet is clear, but transparency, participation and fairness to all delegates is essential—and a resolution such as this should be put to a formal vote. Passage of resolutions by feel has no place in this body, and places too many limits on debate and feedback. Of greatest concern is that the ITU is still an entity that is dominated by governments, and civil society has very few opportunities to provide feedback and participate in the process of governing something that affects nearly every person on the planet. Advocates, users, and technical experts need to have a role in decisions on Internet governance.