Created in 1998, the Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a US non-profit organization based in Los Angeles, California that is in charge of managing the allocation of Internet domain names and IP (Internet Protocol) addresses on a global scale. Although at first sight its core functions can be seen as highly technical, the implications of ICANN’s work impact all countries in the world at many levels. The reason for this is simple: any device that wants to be connected to the Internet must have a unique IP address and, in most cases, a domain name.
To illustrate this point, take UNDP’s web site which has the domain name, www.undp.org, and a matching IP address, 126.96.36.199, that uniquely identifies it on the Internet. Having UNDP’s domain name helps me not having to memorize the 12 digit number (nowadays longer and more complex!) that comprises the IP address. You are welcome to digit in UNDP’s unique IP address into your browser and you will also be directed to our corporate site -not recommended though! In any event, the proper functioning of the Internet demands that a single global addressing scheme exists and is available to all in open fashion -unlike for example postal addresses which are nationally based.
The political space this scheme has opened -and which has been contentious ever since, is known a Internet Governance. Unlike many other global governance processes, Internet Governance has been characterized since its beginnings by two main and related traits: 1. The relatively low and non-commanding role of (most) national governments; and 2. A multi-stakeholder approach where all sectors have both equal footing and voice, including governments. Compared to other global governance mechanisms, Internet Governance is a much democratic as stakeholders wield a lot of power and influence in the various processes.
For developing countries, including both governments and non-state actors, participation in Internet Governance is still a challenge. Bear in mind that back in 1998, very few developing countries were connected to the Internet (for example, only 3 countries in the African continent had access back then) and thus had no stake in these processes. Although the situation has positively evolved since, today most people in developing countries still have no direct access to the global network. While some government and especially civil society actors are very active in this space, representation from the developing world continues to be a big challenge for achieving a truly global Internet Governance process.
UNDP has been involved on Internet Governance since the mid-1990s when it launched its first programmes to support the use of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to enhance human development. As UNDP assisted countries to connect to Internet, the issue of names and address had to be tackled. But little did we know then that this seemingly technical and mundane issue will become so critical for the evolution of the Internet just a few years later. For additional details on UNDP’s role in the past see my previous blog on the subject.
ICANN strategy panels
To address some of these and other emerging issues, ICANN launched last July five strategy panels. Internet Governance observers were not shy in pointing out the link between the timing of the launching of such panels and the NSA revelations on global surveillance. It seems clear to many stakeholders that trust on the Internet has been eroded by such revelations -as well as the viability of the so-called Internet Freedom agenda which heavily focused on the promotion of Article 19 of the UN Human Rights Declaration via the Internet.
The Public Responsibility Framework (PRF) panel has one chair and 6 members representing various sectors, including the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee. The objectives of the PRF include:
- Developed a five year plan for promoting the public interest
- Propose a framework for its implementation
- Suggest programmes and initiatives to achieve the above
The panel had its face to face meeting in Buenos Aires last November where it agreed to its modus operandi and specific outputs. Inputs from the Buenos Aires meeting were used by ICANN Secretariat to the panel to produce a draft paper that was discussed and updated at the in Los Angeles meeting. A series of recommendations were also drafted, recommendations that will be shared with the global community via a Webminar that PRF will be holding the week of 16 February. Inputs from the community will be incorporated as appropriate in the final document which is expected to be submitted to the ICANN board in early March, before the next ICANN global meeting that will take place in Singapore on 23 – 27 March.
From a democratic governance perspective, the way in which Internet Governance emerged and has subsequently evolved since can show that innovative ways of handling global governance issues is actually feasible. Internet Governance is also a reflection of the way in which new ICTs can trigger dramatic disruptions in the global scene, disruptions that can perhaps only be properly addressed by introducing governance innovations that empowering stakeholders while fostering a more open global public sphere.
From a development perspective, most actors driving the current Internet Governance agenda seem to be oblivious to the fact that most people in developing countries are not connected to the Internet. Latest estimates indicate that only 2.8 billion people in the globe have access to the global network – in Africa alone, less than 20% have access, and thus claims about having a truly global governance mechanisms based on a multi-stakeholder (not multi-lateral) model are not yet on target. Representation of developing countries here is still a huge challenge, and one that perhaps entities with substantial financial resources such as ICANN can make a dent. And linking Internet Governance issues to development agendas is one way to start this. This is the approach that I have taken within the PRF panel. And it seems to be working…