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For Internet Freedom Activists, Dubai is a Warning: Finally Live Up to the "Inclusive" Label, Or Else

BY Nick Judd | Friday, December 14 2012

Internet freedom advocates: Internet regulation coming before the ITU signals a failure of current online governance. Photo: ITU

Ongoing in Dubai and expected to end Friday, the World Conference on International Telecommunications has been causing a lot of heartburn for Internet freedom advocates who say that it is the wrong forum to talk about the future of the Internet. WCIT-12 is a treaty-making conference for members of the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, and that, they say, is no replacement for the "inclusive and transparent" "multistakeholder" network that runs the Internet today.

There's just one problem. While Internet freedom activists say their "multistakeholder" model is open and inclusive, photograph any meeting of any of the organizations within it and a certain kind of face will appear far more often than any of the others: the white, Western male. As the Internet grows more important in the developing world, non-Westerners are not entering the leadership of "multistakeholder" organizations at a similar pace.

"The reason why these challenges to the existing system keep coming up," says Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked, "and the reason why the authoritarian countries like China and Russia and Iran keep getting support, keep managing to get support from developing countries, many of which are democratic to different degrees, is because they make the argument successfully that ICANN is full of white people in the developed world speaking English, and increasingly that's not what the Internet-using world looks like."

MacKinnon still says the ITU is not the right forum for conversations about Internet issues, and that the "multistakeholder" model really is open and inclusive. It's just not open and inclusive enough.

Take the Internet Engineering Task Force, for example, the loose organization of working groups that figures out the particulars of how to make packets coming from one part of the world arrive successfully in another. The IETF hosts three meetings a year that are duly publicized online well in advance, and open to anyone. These meetings are continuations of conversations that take place on working group email lists, also free to join. But 2013's meetings will be held in Orlando, Fla., Berlin, Germany, and Vancouver, B.C., in Canada — not exactly convenient to engineers from India or Ghana, who must also foot the bill for airfare and hotel. Some organizations sponsor employees to take part — but unless someone from the developing world has such a sponsor, they're hard-pressed to do so. Even attempting to follow along remotely can be an issue in parts of the world with low bandwidth, MacKinnon observed to me.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which manages domain name and IP address handling, is another example. The organization's chief executive officer, newly appointed this year, is Fadi Chehadé, a citizen of Egypt, Lebanon, and the United States. But of ICANN's 20 other board members, 11 are white European men and four are white European women. ICANN's last organizational meeting, in October, was in Toronto.

"One of the big appeals of the ITU as a venue has been the one-country one-vote ethos of UN agencies," said Emma Llansó, a policy analyst at the advocacy group the Center for Democracy and Technology, "and that's a known table that every country knows they have a seat at. If you don't feel like you can participate in other bodies, that's going to be appealing."

Organizations like ICANN and the IETF understand this is a problem, Llansó said. IETF has a fellowship program that provides training to people in developing countries in how to participate as well as foots the bill for them to attend meetings.

At its Toronto meeting, ICANN announced a plan in conjunction with Africa's Internet numbers registry, AfriNIC, to bring more African voices into that "multistakeholder" model. ICANN also appointed a vice president for Africa, Pierre Dandjinou, of Benin, who had previously served for 12 years as a regional policy advisor on ICT for development e-governance for Africa at the UN Development Programme.

One problem, Dandjinou told me in a Skype interview Tuesday, is that people in many African countries are not aware of how to participate.

At the start of this year, ICANN announced it was taking applications for new top-level domains, like .book.

"We had close to 1,930 applications, and only 17 of them were coming from Africa," Dandjinou said. "And of the 17, in fact I think 11 or even 14 of them came from solely from South Africa. So this was telling that something was wrong. Either the Africans were not well informed of the process, either there was no interest or maybe there was no business or no industry proceeds from Africa."

Absent this participation, Dandjinou said, issues are not being addressed from the perspective of users in low-bandwidth, intermittent-connectivity developing countries, whose telecommunications providers are casting about for new ways to fund development of new Internet infrastructure.

"Access is not always available and access also is not always affordable," Dandjinou said. "Available because of the poor infrastructure that most countries are having so far, meaning there is no backbone, there is no Internet exchange point in most places, and of course most communication has to go out of the country, transmit in other places before coming back to the countries which causes what they call the transit fees. So all of this makes access to the Internet from developing countries much more expensive."

"Transit fees" refers to peering fees that networks sometimes pay one another to move traffic from one network to another. One proposal brought to WCIT-12 would have companies like Google also pay local ISPs in developing countries for the privilege of delivering their content to consumers there — thus, or so the hope goes, solving the problem of how to pay for Internet infrastructure that is now lacking. Absent some mechanism to pay, Dandjinou said, coastal countries with one of a growing number of submarine cable connections between Africa and other continents might have a shot at developing faster Internet speeds, but landlocked countries, like Mali, have to wrangle out the legal terms for moving their Internet traffic across networks and across national borders. Until these problems are solved, there will be fewer Internet users there and the ones that do use the web will encounter issues that Western users will not.

The usage patterns in Africa are also different. Whereas Western countries often deal in landline connections to the Internet for laptops or PCs for speakers of Western languages, in many African countries the typical Internet user is accessing services through a mobile phone and is a native speaker of one of any number of different local languages. While Western users clamor for access to more high-speed data services or better video streaming, companies trying to serve low-bandwidth users in some African countries have to figure out how to reach people who use languages with non-standard character sets on a mobile phone's tiny screen, or to deliver the same service in many different languages.

"If we consider a country where I live, Benin, of 8 million people, maybe 1-2 million only understand French which is the local language here and is the administrative language. The other 6 million, they all speak their own languages," Dandjinou said. "If you are able to generate [compatibility across] those languages, those people can become users of the Internet."

Internet executives and telecommunications representatives could hash this out within that "multistakeholder" soup of the World Wide Web Consortium, IETF, and ICANN, Dandjinou said — but they don't know how. What they do know is the ITU, which is actually older than the United Nations and to which many of these countries already belong.

"What I am trying to say here is the multistakeholder model is a little bit new and it will require many years, many meetings, so that countries understand that this model maybe fits better with the development of the Internet than what we are seeing with ITU," Dandjinou told me.

Until people in the "multistakeholder" model figure out how to make their structure work for developing countries, those countries will continue to seek recourse in forums like the ITU — giving legitimacy to other nations that want to make the ITU a preeminent forum for Internet governance, like Russia or China, who are doing so for reasons that Internet freedom activists deem to be less wholesome. And so it is that Internet users around the world sit and wait, on the edge of their computer chairs, to know whether their cat videos will remain safe from the troubling proposals being discussed in Dubai.

MacKinnon, the author and Internet-freedom-watcher, is optimistic.

"I think frankly given how much hoopla there is about them, most of them probably will not pass," she said.

But keeping the UN's hands off the Internet still doesn't create a venue for Internet regulation that is safer for freedom of speech.

"It's a nontrivial problem," MacKinnon said, "but if it's not addressed, we're going to continue to have this pressure from the non-West to dismantle the existing institutions and move it to the UN where they're more comfortable."

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