It probably comes as no surprise that even though I am a geek, I am also very American in many of my opinions. What got me thinking about this? A recent interview with ITU Director Houlin Zhao on the CNET News site discussing the likelihood of increasing levels of ITU involvement in the governance of the Internet.
It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that I don’t really think this is a good idea. But before anyone dismisses my opinions as those of yet another provincial American intent on denying the existence of anything outside of my national borders, read on.
First, let’s start with a few quotes from Director Zhao:
“According to ITU’s definition of ‘telecommunications,’ telecommunications covers almost anything. Therefore according to our own lawyers, the Internet is one of these telecommunications mediums. Others argue that ‘telecommunications’ is too wide and it does not include the Internet.”
Maybe my instinctive distrust of this statement does come from my American-bred distrust of government….but maybe it comes from my simple acknowledgement of human nature. The farther up any power structure you go, the more pressure you get from the temptations of wealth, power, and prestige. It takes a successively stronger sense of morals and ethics to withstand these temptations. At the same time, the nature of such power usually discourages the very people who have that strong sense of morals and ethics from seeking out those positions. I’m not saying all high-level executives are crooks — that’s demonstrably not true — but I am saying that over time you’re far more likely to get leaders who have learned the fine art of expedient compromise than who are staunchly committed to an unwavering set of principles. (For one thing, people who compromise tend to stay in position longer.)
“Anything which concerns the future development of the Internet will be part of the question of Internet governance. It covers a very wide range of topics not just related to technology development, service development, but also policy matters, sovereignty, security, privacy, almost anything.”
I have no reason to distrust Director Zhao. I also have no reason to trust that I will be able to say the same about his eventual successor. Bitter human experience has taught me that his successor is more likely to be a sinner than a saint, and I don’t think it’s wise to let someone with good intentions gather up the reigns to such an ill-defined range of power and make it easy for someone less savory to take it all away.
“I do not consider ICANN an enemy. We are founding members of ICANN’s Protocol Supporting Organization. I myself signed that paper on behalf of the ITU. We tried to support ICANN as far as we could, but on the other hand you see that ICANN’s mandate seems to be a little bit unclear…”
Okay, I spoke too soon. If Director Zhao doesn’t consider ICANN an enemy, maybe I don’t trust him. ICANN has already demonstrated a distressing tendency to be the lapdog of monopolists and big business, and with the various U.N. scandals of late, I don’t trust the international community to get it any better. There is just too much money involved.
“In my opinion, freedom of speech seems to be a politically sensitive issue. A lot of policy matters are behind it. It’s not in ITU’s competence, but of course we can make some contributions.”
“On privacy, I think that a lot of things are not related to technology only; those are policy matters.”
Director Zhao — and the recent track record of the ITU — makes it clear that he wants the ITU to only consider technical matters. This is a highly optimistic course to take, one that speaks well of his intentions, but is ultimately unworkable. You can’t effectively separate policy, technology, and politics, not on the international level. Heck, I have lost count of how many times have I written technical security guidance for Exchange or Windows that boils down to “get involved in the process your organization uses to create policy” because a very real technical issue cannot be effectively controlled by technology alone.
When technologists refuse to consider the non-technical ramifications of their work, they’re leaving the door wide open for others to abuse their creations.
“Some people argued very strongly that ICANN’s establishment based in California gives people some worries. This issue should be addressed. If ITU were to allocate addresses, anybody could have a choice between their national assignment or a regional or international assignment. That would be good for the development of the Internet.”
No matter where you base your central governing authority, some people will get worried. Geneva is no exception, nor is just about any other site you can think of. Whether you like California or not, they’re a far less repressive regime than most in the world, which means it’s a lot easier for ICANN to get on with business. (I just wish they would.)
“People say the Internet flourished because of the absence of government control. I do not agree with this view. I argue that in any country, if the government opposed Internet service, how do you get Internet service? If there are any Internet governance structure changes in the future, I think government rules will be more important and more respected.”
These would be the same governments that are trying to weaken security protocols so that they can eavesdrop on Internet communications, prevent the use of encryption, and grant monopolies to businesses that are clearly unable and unwilling to deploy useful Internet connectivity to their customers. Sorry, Director Zhao, but I think that rules from those governments should not be respected, nor do they have any place in deciding the governance of the Internet.
ICANN has shown itself to be a player in the political game, much to the detriment of the Internet. Bad as they are, though, replacing them with an international bureaucracy just slows the whole thing down even further. The ITU has a lot of expertise that would be valuable for Internet governance, but it needs to be one voice among many.