5 October 2005

Africa: Internet Governance: Do We Expect Fireworks in Tunis?


Lagos — As US rejects calls to relinquish control of Internet, Tayo Ajakaye gives a peep at what to expect in Tunis next month.

Come November this year, the world will gather in Tunis, capital of Tunisia, to deliberate on the future of the Internet. The World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) is scheduled to hold there from November 16 to 18. Before now, the biggest optimism of many developing countries to which African nations belong was that there would at least be some cosmetic changes that would guarantee them a say in the way the Internet is run. They did not expect the radical boost they got last week.

Traditionally, the United States of America has been the sole manager of the Internet. The country through the Department of Commerce approves changes to the internet's core addressing systems, the root zone files which is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). As far as the US was concerned, what the other nations see as bothering on sovereginty was for the US, just a matter of commerce.

The US had many supporters. These include European countries who did not really see anything wrong with the current administration of the Internet. They had given the US support traditionally.

The complaints in recent times from developing countries had emanated from the developing countries who were already overloaded with the one - way flow of information from the advanced nations of the world to the less developing countries. Africans have joined in the cry of Internet marginalisation. No one seems to be listening until the UN summoned anough courage to look into the all issues bothering on the Information Society.

Preparatory meetings have been held in several regions of the world towards the Tunis phase of the WSIS which is supposed to be grand finale. It seemed however that everyone knew what the other person was going to propose. Until now.

Late last month, the United Nations' Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) suggested four alternatives to this bruning issues: the first option was for the UN to create a body known as the Global Internet Council that draws its members from governments and what it termed other other stakeholders to take over the US oversight role of Icann.

The second option was to maintain the status qou apart from strengthening Icann's Governmental Advisory Committee to become a forum for official debate on net issues.

Yet the third option was to relegate Icann to a narrow technical role and set up an International Internet Council that sits outside the UN. US loses oversight of Icann

The fourth and last option was to create three new bodies; the first to take over from Icann and look after the net's addressing system; the second to be a debating chamber for governments, businesses and the public and the third to co-ordinate work on "internet-related public policy issues".

The United States was, as usual, still finding the appropriate wordings to reject all four options when opposition came from an unlikely quarters: the Eurpoean Union.

Basically the EU new proposal include a new model which would foster development of public policy principles. It also includes provision for equitable global IP number block allocation, the procedures for changing the root zone file system to provide for insertion of new top-level domains and for changes of ccTLD managers. Other aspects include open support for a new public policy forum that would work with existing institutions and organizations to address the multi-dimensional and interrelated public policy issues without trying to in the EU words "dominate issues already dealt with elsewhere" or performing oversight functions.

To the US, this was the most unkind cut of all. If the The EU proposal sails through, it would bring the Internet and ICANN under international law rather than US law.

The the US coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department, Ambassador David Gross was quoted as saying, "We will not agree to the UN taking over the management of the internet. Some countries want that. We think that's unacceptable."

The lines are clear. EU and much of the world are on one side. The US on the other. There are still some people who are not fully decided. Like Australia, whose national ans president of Icann, Paul Towmey, had in time past asked the UN to keep off.

According to him, "The internet is 200,000 private networks linked by private agreement," he said. "At the heart of the way the internet works is that it grows quickly through the private-sector model. It's not formulated by international treaty."

So, then US and Australia on the one side and the United Nations, the developing countries and the EU on the other side.

On this issue, the EU had suddenly become the ally of the developing nations. For Africa, this does seem a good ally.

But how would this issue be resolved? It could be the failure of the Tunis phase of the WSIS being rehearsed.

The Secretary General of the ITU, Japan's Yosshio Utsumi had last Friday told the press that if ITU was asked to perform that function, it could do it commendably. "We could do it if we were asked to," He was also reported as saying that ITU's experience in communications, its structure and its cooperation with private and public bodies made it best-placed to take on the role.

But would they (ITU) ever be asked to adminidter the Internet, especially with the possibility of Africa's Hammadoun Toure becoming the next Secretary -General of the ITU and with Anan's tenure still running? Or will there be a face-off between the US and much of the rest of the world in Tunisia? The answer is less than 42 days away.

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