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Slip-sliding away

Yesterday's UK Internet Governance Forum meeting was a masterful demonstration of why people outside government, especially techies, get terminally frustrated with the processes of governance. It was meandering and slow, with no particular goal in sight other than to make it to future meetings, where presumably the same issues would be discussed again. There are many of these later meetings, and they all sound important. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which actually does govern, or at least run, the domain name system and allocates the numbered Internet protocol addresses, will hold its June meeting in London. There will be a summit in Brazil in April, an ITU meeting in October, all leading up eventually to the full Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul in September.

That's a lot of wrangling over a question that certainly matters - how should the Internet be governed, by whom, and with what accountability? - but that is happening in a post-Snowden technical vacuum. The congregations that will determine how the Internet functions technically are happening elsewhere, such as the March Internet Engineering Task Force meeting, also in London, as engineers and security experts meet to try to figure out how to harden the Internet against endemic multi-lateral spying. Other than a few BCS representatives discussing surveillance, the technical community was not represented. The need for their presence was noted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office director of international cyber policy, Jamie Saunders, who called the organizations beginning with "Internet" that do the hard technical work: IETF, IAB, ISOC, and so on, the "i-stars".

For the rest...as Nigel Hickson, now ICANN's vice-president for Europe and a veteran of the early 1990s crypto wars, commented, the drive to make ICANN less cosily attached to the US Department of Commerce long pre-dates Snowden. So does the dispute between countries that support a multi-stakeholder model and those that want a top-down ITU-style governance model (I trace this discussion to at least 1997). Snowden or no Snowden, he said, it would have resurfaced this year as part of the WSIS+10 review and other upcoming ITU events. Snowden's revelations have strengthened the existing feeling that the US cannot go on being the most special snowflake in terms of Internet governance. As much as many Americans seem to resent that (reader email has frequently said "We invented it, why should we give it away?"), I agree with Hickson that widening ICANN's accountability was always inevitable and even essential.

The problem is that while this group is fiddling - "Why do we need Internet principles?" asked the moderator seriously to start off a session on what those principles should be - the chance that what they decide will actually matter is slipping away. Some examples, from recent weeks' headlines.

Item: In the US, Comcast is buying Time-Warner cable. Comcast claims that this is really not a bad thing because it has all this competition - Google Fiber, Hulu, Netflix. Consumerist has a nice round-up of the objections. The problem is not just that the merger creates a nationwide near-monopoly on cable provision (after all, the UK's Virgin Media is in a similar position) but that in most areas there is only one other broadband provider (where in most of the UK there are five major ones, and often hundreds of smaller ones). This doubly matters because...

Item: In 20 US states ISPs and cable companies have successfully campaigned to get restrictions on municipal wifi on the books. This seems to me no different than General Motors and Chevron teaming up in the 1930s to buy up and shut down more than 200 municipal streetcar systems in order to force a reluctant public to buy cars. This is where a giant Comcast is a particular threat.

Item: AT&T's "bright idea" of sponsored data is spreading to the UK, where Techdirt reports that Vodafone wants to try it too. As previously noted, this is a spectacularly bad idea that allows yesterday's innovators, who took advantage of equal access to build big, established companies, to pull up the ladder behind them and lock out newcomers.

Item: Yahoo! Germany has published new terms and conditions that refer German users to Irish data protection law in case of disputes. Software and services companies are long accustomed to dictating the jurisdiction that will apply (usually California). So Germans are supposed to learn English to complain about how their data is being handled now?

Item: Nominet, the UK domain name registry, which sponsored this IGF meeting, is itself preparing to favor businesses over charities as it brings in second-level .uk registrations. As Simon Phipps writes, this is simply not fair. It's certainly not how we want wider Internet governance issues to be decided. That's why we have Internet principles: so we have a way of gauging whether the structures we have and are building are having the impact we intended. Two of those principles are fairness and equal access.

All of these moves tend to concentrate power over access to and/or content on the Internet. Yet that was the big subject that never came up yesterday: the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of private-sector players and the need to decentralize. By the end of all these meetings, there may be a governance structure - and nothing left to govern.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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