Is U.S. Civil Society Really for the Multi-Stakeholder Approach to Internet Governance?

by Mike Wendy on June 8, 2012

In the middle of last week, Public Knowledge’s Gigi Sohn was seemingly all for the multi-stakeholder process of Internet governance – that is, America’s official negotiating position as it enters the update of the UN’s ITU International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).

The ITU agreement, which sets forth the rules for international communications traffic, hasn’t been updated since 1988, well before the Internet took off commercially.  This December in Dubai, its 193 members will seek to update it.  Not surprisingly, and for a variety of reasons, there are grumblings from many in the ITU that the U.S. has too much control over the Internet, and thus should be stripped or humbled of its leading role.  The ITU treaty represents one such way to accomplish that.  (For a good background piece about what’s at stake, check out this piece by CNet’s Declan McCullagh)

Uncle Sam, industry and, purportedly, U.S. “civil society” (as represented by Sohn) rightfully believe that the unregulated, multi-stakeholder model (which is based on numerous global, voluntary, bottom-up peer groups, which architect and “run” the Internet’s underlying standards) has made the open Internet the great success that it is today, and, consequently, it must remain the model for the ITU.

But, as one U.S. government official recently noted, nearly a full majority – or more – have different thoughts, meaning the treaty, if things get out of hand, could end up imposing an unprecedented international regulatory yoke on the vibrant, growing medium, minimizing America’s guiding and benevolent hand over the Internet.


I wonder about Sohn and her civil society compatriots in this equation leading up the ITU vote.  Yes, it’s true, at least superficially, that she supports the multi-stakeholder approach.  Noted Sohn in a press release last week:

“We believe the United States should promote global Internet freedom.  We join members of Congress from both parties and the Obama Administration in opposing international regulation of the Internet.   That view was strongly expressed that view this morning at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

“We agree the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) jurisdiction should not expand to encompass regulation or governance of the Internet, and that some of the proposals to change the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) would have dramatically bad effects on the open and decentralized internet we know and love.

“We are also pleased to endorse the bipartisan resolution introduced by House Commerce Subcommittee Chairman Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) which opposes increased government control of the Internet as proposed at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to be held later this year.”

This seems fine; it reaffirms the multi-stakeholder model.  Yet, by Friday of last week, it looked as if she had started to change her mind.

Sitting on a panel with U.S. officials and industry experts last Friday, Sohn walked back from her previously unflagging support, noting that civil society can’t possibly be at every multi-stakeholder meeting to help the Internet run, and because forces such as hers at Public Knowledge are spread so thin, it placed civil society interests at significant disadvantage to corporate or other interests.

By Monday, Sohn had in fact formalized this walk-back, stating in a blog post:

…[It] will take more than jawboning by civil society groups here to stop the threat of an ITU takeover. US civil society (and by extension the US Government) must acknowledge the concerns of countries that believe that the US has too much control over Internet governance, and must address those concerns without giving control of the Internet to the ITU. Insisting that anything less than the status quo will lead to an ITU takeover is both untrue and ultimately self-defeating.

What could this mean?

Well, I’ll tell ya’.  The U.S. government, industry and civil society’s Kumbaya, which looked like it was perhaps wasn’t.

It is well known that many in civil society (and even some in our own government) consider Internet access not merely a civil right but a human right.  Significant numbers of other ITU members, as well as many among civil society abroad, harbor this and other similar anti-private property points of view, too.

Quite simply, old habits die hard.  They will not die for the sake of U.S. ITU unity it seems.

For privately run networks (90% or more of U.S. Internet infrastructure is privately owned), such anti-property sentiments have important consequences if voted out of the ITU – they would essentially render private networks, and perhaps any edge services attached thereto, into public utilities.  Not only would this effectively kill Internet innovation, it would also balkanize the Internet because the U.S. would likely not sign on to such an agreement.

At this stage in the process, we don’t know what all will end up on the table for the ITU vote in December.  By September, we’ll have a clearer sense of the proposals from the ITU’s 193 members.  But, it seems clear to me that though U.S. civil society initially wanted to look like a team player, more than likely – as Sohn let reveal – it will probably seek to extract some concessions as the cost of being “unified” around the multi-stakeholder model.

Gigi blew the proverbial dog whistle. Civil society, as “disadvantaged” as it is, will respond, setting up a good cop, bad cop game on an international level that will pressure U.S. policymakers toward, I believe, anti-property, boil-the-frog concessions akin to Net Neutrality, etc.

So, for those who run and manage the Internet’s private property infrastructure, you better sleep with one eye open.  Be on guard for the ITU looting this December, which will come from not only known adversaries, but also, it appears, from U.S. civil society’s harpies (and their government allies) who will seek to soil the table for their progressive, anti-property gain.

txpatriot June 8, 2012 at 8:57 pm

I don’t care for the alarmist headline on the c|net article.

The UN has no authority to tax US companies and Declan darn well knows it. Also, he and Larry confuse international settlement payments with taxes. One is a carrier-to-carrier payment and the other is paid to governments. The fact that some national carriers are government-owned does not eliminate that distinction.

I thought the c|net article was awful.

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