Text size

Who controls the infrastructure of the Internet? Over the past year, discussions have been held by representatives of 189 countries and hundreds of additional observers in an attempt to formulate a joint declaration of principles that will provide an answer to this question. The discussions constitute the first international effort to arrive at agreements on issues such as accessibility to communications means, the use of sources of information and human rights in the digital era.

If you think that achieving agreement on these subjects is a highly complicated matter, you are absolutely right. "On the final day of the discussions, a little over two weeks ago, the whole thing almost collapsed," says Sami Ravel, an economics expert from the Foreign Ministry who is representing Israel at the talks.

The ambitious project is part of a two-phased effort that was launched at the beginning of 2001. Under the auspices of the United Nations, a conference of the participants in the project will convene twice - in Geneva, this December, and in Tunisia, in November 2005. The conference, to be known as WSIS (World Summit for Information Society), is to formulate two basic documents - a declaration of principles and a declaration for implementation. To prepare for the Geneva meeting, where the two documents are to be signed in the presence of prime ministers and the secretary-general of the United Nations, regional conferences that discussed the clauses to be incorporated in the documents were held over the past few months. These were followed by three preparatory conferences at which the representatives discussed the two documents, which were then united into one.

The organization of the conference has been entrusted to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), which is the UN's professional arm in the realm of communications. The basic documents do not deal only with purely technical subjects. They contain bombastic declarations, which recall documents that focus on human rights. According to Article 23 of the draft declaration, "the Global Information Society should address the interests of all nations, most particularly, the interests of the developing countries, in a manner that secures the fair, balanced and harmonious development of all the people of the world." And Article 48 adds: "The Information Society is founded on respect for, and enjoyment of, cultural expression."

Other clauses mention issues such as access to sources of information, above all the Internet, in Third World countries, access to information by people in remote places, the development of information infrastructures, security on the Internet, ethics in the sphere of content, and more.

The debate over Article 19

As the date of the Geneva conference approaches, it is becoming clear that if and when the information society that the declaration of principles talks about is established, it will not be based on international harmony. Some of the basic clauses in the declaration have sparked bitter feuding between cultures and regimes.

For example, organizations around the world that defend freedom of expression warn against the conference's intention not to include Article 19 of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, the clause that is the major foundation for the existence of the UN as an international organization.

Alain Modoux, a senior adviser to the Swiss delegation to WSIS, maintains that representatives of some Asian countries, including China, Pakistan and India, made it clear from the start of the preparatory proceedings that as far as they are concerned, the declaration of principles is totally unrelated to human rights. "That contention disguises their attempt to avoid a discussion about freedom of expression, and especially freedom of the communications media, including the Internet," Modoux says.

Modoux adds that democratic countries that recognize and appreciate Article 19 are not pressuring Third World countries or countries that do not have democratic regimes for fear of angering them. If those countries feel affronted and leave the discussions, the effort to formulate the joint documents will become meaningless.

The result, as it finds expression in the articles of the declaration of principles, is in fact quite melancholy. For example, the declaration states that the existence of free communications media shall be "in accordance with the legal system of each country." In other words, the declaration stipulates that the local law, which in some cases is promulgated by a ruler who is not an advocate of freedom of expression, is more important than the existence of free and independent communications media.

According to Ravel, the debate over Article 19 is real and the preparatory discussions in fact addressed it. "Article 19 represents what was achieved in previous summit conferences. Now, the delegates are asking themselves whether they should go forward, beyond Article 19; go backward, by not citing Article 19 at all; or make do with what exists, meaning citing Article 19 and leaving it at that. Some representatives argued that if the decision is made to just mention Article 19, the question arises of why a new declaration is being formulated at all. Is this whole effort being made merely to write again what has already been written in the past?"

This isn't the only problem. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders are cautioning against vaguely worded formulations. For example, one clause states, in part: "It is also necessary to prevent the use of information resources or technologies for criminal or terrorist purposes." This would seem to be a statement that many countries would be willing to sign; but the term "terrorist" is interpreted differently by different countries. The concern is that certain countries will draw on the UN declaration in order to consolidate legislation against freedom of expression.

Moving backward

The most perturbing aspect of the declaration is apparently the clause about the body that will control the infrastructures of the Internet. At present, this is an American body. The Internet was established in the 1960s as a military network of the Pentagon. Subsequently, it was opened to academic use and management, and was later transferred to private bodies. In November 1998, the U.S. Department of Commerce signed a memorandum of understanding with a newly established organization known as ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) under which the technical management of the Internet, which had hitherto been performed in full by the U.S. government, would be gradually transferred to the private sector, through ICANN. The organization was given responsibility to manage Internet addresses, but the agreement stipulated that any change in the policy of managing the Internet would require the approval of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The U.S. administration called on bodies from the private sector to affiliate themselves with ICANN in order to assist it in managing the Internet. The organization's management team consists of nine technical representatives from companies engaged in maintaining the Web, and nine additional representatives who are chosen by Web surfers from around the world. This structure has caused a plethora of complications. The U.S. administration wants to maintain its control over the organization; while at the same time, there are increasing calls for changes in the organization and for increasing the public input in decision making.

In March 2002, the chairman of ICANN, Stuart Lynn, proposed a transition to a method under which all the members of the management group would be delegated by nation states. Surfers would be better represented if the management group had representatives who were appointed by governments, Lynn said at the time.

As expected, the fiercest opposition to the idea of equality among the ICANN member-states came from the U.S. government. Members of Congress said at the time that a change in the organization that controled the management of the Internet was not an American interest.

Now the proposal that management of the infrastructures of the Internet should be transferred from an American body to an international body is being made again. According to one such idea, an international body will be established to replace ICANN. Another proposal calls for this body to be inter-governmental.

"International by definition means everyone is involved, from governments to the private sector and civil society; whereas inter-governmental gives the impression that only governments are involved and not necessarily the people," Mohammed Sharil Tarmizi, one of the directors of ICANN, told Reuters in an interview.

Sami Ravel, mapping the balance of forces, notes, "The Americans are sticking to their opinion that the private sector should continue to manage things and that governments should become involved only in criminal subjects or in matters that are liable to affect the security of countries. The Europeans say that there is place for international cooperation. There is an entire bloc of countries, including Brazil, India and the Arab states, that argue that the Internet is an international resource and therefore it is inconceivable that one country should control it. They say that it is impossible to rely on the private sector, as it is concerned solely with narrow economic interests."

Other members of ICANN have stated that they do not intend to put forward an unequivocal position one way or the other.

These disagreements, Ravel says, almost caused the collapse of the last preparatory conference. "All the representatives of the countries and dozens of observers were in the conference hall in Geneva," he recalls. "The discussion proceeded from clause to clause. Everyone understood that if a clause was agreed on by all the countries, it would become part of the declaration; and if everyone objected, it would be thrown out. If some agreed and some objected, the clause would be placed in parentheses and an attempt to reach agreement would be made. In practice, almost the entire text was placed in parentheses. The main reason was the issue of civil rights and the question of who will control the infrastructure of the Internet."

Ravel observes that when a body such as the United Nations encounters a situation of disagreement, it turns to procedural matters. "There were some who said that the hall was too big and that it would be better to move to a smaller hall with fewer delegates. We moved to another hall and there was tremendous pressure to come to an agreement - which didn't happen. Then came another proposal to make the forum smaller; and then the arguments started, because why should a small forum decide on behalf of all the countries? The result was that instead of progressing, the discussion went step after step backward."

Now, Ravel says, the fate of the conference or of the document it is formulating remains unclear. "Perhaps they'll leave it to the leaders to decide, though that's unlikely. Maybe they will decide to postpone the decision until the second phase, meaning Tunisia, in 2005. Another possibility is that more discussions will be held in the short time that remains and heavy pressure will certainly be exerted to reach agreement despite everything."