High-Level Conferences on ICT and the Internet: What Do They Mean for the Internet As We Know It


ICANN 47 Gala Dinner

I’m here at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society for a talk by Veni Markovski, ICANN vice-president for Russia, who’s talking to us today about issues in Internet governance. (This post was written with Ethan Zuckerman and Tim Davies)

Ethan¬†introduces Veni, who was very involved in building the Internet in Bulgaria, and who is now a leading expert on Internet governance and policy worldwide, with particular experience in Russia and former soviet countries. From early on, he has taken a great deal of involvement and responsibility for the complicated Internet governance issues that we all recognize are important, but can sometimes feel intimidating. He’s a former ICANN board member, a former board member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

ICANN and Internet Governance

undefined

The “good old times” when nobody cared about ICANN are gone, says Veni. In years past, it seemed like the organization was in a little box that dealt with domain names. There were talks about new top level domains and domains with international scripts. Now, people are suddenly talking about ICAANN in the context of recent cybersecurity revelations by Snowden.

Imagine what might have happened if the Internet wasn’t created in the US, but instead by the Soviet Ministry of Defense. Would they ever have given it to the Ministry of Commerce, and would they ever have given governance of this over to a non-profit in Vladivostok? When Veni mentioned this recently, people in the room mentioned that Internet technology *was* created in the Soviet Union as well, and that this system remained in the ministry of defense.

For many people around the globe who don’t understand latin script, the Internet was this latin Western something. Since the earlier days, many more countries have become involved. Countries recognise that the Internet is about more than access to information and maybe access to email and Facebook. We now recognise that issues of privacy and security are also caught up in the technical and policy decisions involved in Internet governance.

Many countries don’t have a term for “governance” as an idea that involves citizens, companies, non-profits, and governments on an equal standpoint. Phrases like “multi-stakeholder” and “equal stakeholder” also don’t make so much sense. When people are told about ICANN, the first question is always “who controls it?” The right question is to ask “what controls the Internet” — the standards, software, and practices involved.

Snowden’s revelations have become a catalyst for broader conversation about Internet governance. Both governments and individuals are looking more closely at the architecture of the Internet. They’re asking why there’s only one domain name system, and how else things could be structured.

Outsiders are often people with the best suggestions. Veni tells us about someone who attended a meeting and was inspired to create a new program in Internet governance and cybersecurity. The next thing he knows, Veni find himself giving a talk at their university and responding to student essays. It’s a great example, he says, of growing interest in this topic.

Visualizing Internet Governance Processes

undefined

Image from INTERNET GOVERNANCE PROCESSES: VISUALISING THE PLAYING FIELD (pdf) notice the “important meetings” versus “meetings” labels.

Around the world, at this moment, dozens of people are discussing the way that the Internet should be governed. Some people don’t like it; some people want to change it, and some want to change it entirely. Even in some cases, countries that aren’t talking to each other are putting together new initiatives to create private internets within their own countries.

Within this ecosystem of conversations are groups like the aW3C, the Internet Society, and the IETF, a group of engineers who are assembling RFCs to suggest how the Internet could work. Groups like the International Telecommunications Union represent government interests – the ITU is an international treaty organization and the participants are states who are members of the treaty.

Each year, there is a particular set of meetings that have a profound potential for shaping the future of the Internet, usually in public meetings that anyone can attend or at least watch via video. These meetings aspire towards participation, towards allowing participation from people who have something to say. ICANN may not be an international treaty organization, but it aspires to be an international organization, and Veni argues, it is in practice an international organization. At an ICANN meeting, you can find your countrymen and women talking with internet pioneers, and you can imagine them as the next Vint Cerf or Larry Page in the next ten years. Ten years is a massive amount of time on the internet – it’s the lifespan of Facebook and longer than the existence of Twitter – it’s hard to even imagine the shape of the internet in another decade.

Education and the Future of the Internet

undefined

ICANN is working on university outreach, trying to bring academic institutions into the process of internet governance. “If we don’t educate the decisionmakers, the people who work at parliament and regulatory bodies, we cannot expect them to understand what’s at stake and how the internet works.” Veni tells us about a large organization that wanted to be responsible for issuing IP addresses, rather than the five regional internet registries. This new organization planned to request a trillion IPv6 addresses and to distribute them – they were being advised by an “expert” who wasn’t aware that the minimum address size you could request was 80 million blocks, each of a trillion addresses each. IPv4 offers only a few billion addresses – IPv6 offers orders of magnitude more, but this large organization wasn’t aware of the scale of the shift in address space. Veni sees this as a failure of ICANN to train the trainers, to educate people in different regions about the issues and current nature of internet governance.

One of the problems Veni has in promoting ICANN is people’s assumption that Veni is advocating for ICANN’s parochial interests. There are lots of people who respond to the issues ICANN raises by noting, as some of the American internet pioneers say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Russians, instead, say “It’s working, don’t touch it”, which includes the recognition that touching it might break it. And there’s a sense in which the internet is running and not broken – the Internet makes it possible to have international contact in a way that was astounding to a user of twenty years ago. Veni remembers being connected to the internet via a 1200 baud modem and being amazed at his ability to connect to ideas around the globe from Bulgaria. (Veni notes how shocked he was at the poor state of internet connectivity when he moved to this country. )

These upcoming internet governance meetings are important, Veni argues. The upcoming meeting in Istanbul will discuss technical, political, legal and cultural aspects of the internet. The World Telecommunications Development Conference in Dubai this summer will discuss “broadband for sustainable development”. Broadband has different meanings in different countries – DSL, mobile, everything from 1 megabit to 100 megabits per second. European governments are dedicating millions of euros a year to bring the internet to the people because governments understand the importance of expanding connection from the 2.5 billion people who are already connected. The 5 billion who are not connected don’t know what they can gain from connection, and we don’t know what they can bring.

ICANN has one, simple goal: when you enter a domain name, you’ll go to the correct website. This is surprisingly complicated, and people are often working hard to subvert these systems. ICANN often ends up working on pressing cybersecurity problems like the Conficker virus, which was likely to cause damage around the world, and ICANN and others worked to fend off the attack. There are many cybersecurity issues we don’t work on, Veni say – when Target loses 70 million email addresses, it makes you wonder about the corporation’s name – but ICANN works in a way that tries to encourage individuals to take part in internet governance.

Upcoming Issues with Internet Governance To Be Aware Of

Upcoming internet governance meetings are important, Veni argues. An upcoming meeting in Istanbul will discuss technical, political, legal and cultural aspects of the internet. The World Telecommunications Development Conference in Dubai this summer will discuss “broadband for sustainable development”. Broadband has different meanings in different countries – DSL, mobile, everything from 1 megabit to 100 megabits per second. European governments are dedicating millions of euros a year to bring the internet to the people because governments understand the importance of expanding connection from the 2.5 billion people who are already connected. The 5 billion who are not connected don’t know what they can gain from connection, and we don’t know what they can bring.

Veni also tells us the story of Cornficker, a virus that threatened to take control of top level domains. ICANN worked behind the scenes to adjust the domain system to reduce the risk. Veni tells us another story from Bulgaria, a moment where the Internet Society of Bulgaria fought against a proposed government policy to charge license fees for Internet use and surveil citizens. The case resulted in more than a changed decision; it also raised awareness about Internet policies throughout Bulgaria, with hundreds of articles written about it.

Questions

Ethan asks: you’ve been making the point that you want more people involved in Internet governance. At the same time, you’ve made the point that it’s a vast field with a large number of organisations, that you travel incessantly, and that not all the meetings are open to people. What should people who care about the Internet do about this? Secondly, what should foundations do about this?

Veni replies that you don’t have to travel to get involved. Join dialogue on mailing lists at organizations like 1net.org, who have a history of working on this issue and imagining a vision for what the Internet could be in ten years. Ten years ago, nobody could have imagined Twitter. ICANN also pays attention to ideas and comments from anyone, on an equal footing, unlike other organizations that will only listen to companies or governments.

Ethan asks: where would you ask people to start? Veni suggests that people find out who’s enthusiastic about this dialogue in their countries and lobby the parliamentary experts or advisors on the issues they care about. Taking off his ICANN hat, Veni says that people often don’t believe that government won’t listen. The reality is that governments have changed. Especially in Eastern Europe, governments are trying to listen to people before it’s too late, especially on issues having to do with the Internet. In Bulgaria last year, on June 14, the government appointed a new head of the security services. People protested online, and the next day, he resigned. This could not have happened without the Internet, he says. Unless we support an Internet that enables this kind of bottom-up process, we may lose that.

Consider Bulgaria, Veni says, where it can be dangerous to support gay rights. Recently, a young man was killed because the people who beat him said he “looked” gay. If the government controlled Internet access, the risk might be higher.

Tim Davies worries that remote participation in Internet governance isn’t equal participation. In this system of many Internet meetings across an ecosystem of organizations, very few organizations have the resources to participate meaningfully. Furthermore, we’re not using the Internet itself to organize this conversation.

Veni mentions that this is true in many cases. All the same, he says, ICANN is trying to hold meetings on different continents for this reason. Veni thinks that the main issue is that people don’t believe that their opinion is important to them. He’s most worried that people who are making the Internet aren’t sharing their voices.

Bruce Schneier asks about discussions about Internet Balkanization: Brazil, Germany, China. Veni responds that he doesn’t like the term in terms of separation and division, and that the term predated Snowden. Another attendee asks what if people want to fragment the Internet along national lines. Veni responds that it’s important to have dialogue. If countries and organizations want to create their own thing, fine.

Ethan asks, if Brazil and China create their own DNS and Internet, ICANN is fine with that? Veni mention that ICANN has no power to stop them. National Internet systems have been pursued by many countries over time. And every country decides this on their own basis — maybe they don’t want to make their products and ideas available to others in the world.

An attendee asks about the idea of ICANN becoming more internationalized. Veni mentions that ICANN has offices and participants from many countries around the world. While they’re not structured as an international organization in the same way as something like the Red Cross. Could it develop further and change? It changes all the time. Because ICANN is an international organization that cares about participation from governments (130 governments who are members of the government advisory committee), they’re able to hold meetings like the upcoming one in Brazil. Even governments who sometimes question ICANN’s actions participate as active members in the advisory committee. Sometimes, governments present the perception that ICANN is controlled by the US government, but that’s not the case