Interview with Interview with Milton Mueller, part III

Trial and Error in Internet Governance — ICANN, WSIS and the making of a global civil society.

In 2002 MIT Press published Milton Mueller’s Ruling the Root, one of the first detailed investigations into the Internet domain name policies. In it Mueller describes the history of the Internet address and name space and the root zone file and root name servers, without which the Internet would not be able to function. Ever since the birth of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) in 1998, the private company that oversees ‘name space’, issues are becoming less technical and more political. Governments seek more influence in a world that is traditionally run by a select group of engineers and corporate managers. Milton Mueller is professor at the School of Information Studies, Syracuse University (NY) and director of the Convergence Center. He has widely published about regulatory issues in the global telecommunications industry. Milton Mueller is also editor and regular contributor to the ICANNwatch website. This online was conducted early 2003 and extended for this book in May 2005.

GL: In Ruling the Root you mention the Internet’s technical cadre’s ‘allergy to democratic methods and public accountability.’ You mention that Internet pioneers, such as Jon Postel, refused to run for office in any electoral system. Those who ran the Internet in the early days were supposed to be selected with the consensus of the ‘community’. Would you say that this mentality, being a mixture of male engineering and hippie culture, is lying at the heart of the ICANN controversies? Would a cultural geneology help us to understand the current situation?

MM: The “community consensus” idea of the early days of the Internet (1986 – 1996) was indeed part of a specific culture that developed among the (mostly male) engineers. Like all social groupings, that culture developed its own pecking order and ruling elite, but it also had communitarian, democratic and liberal elements. Democratic in the sense in which the Magna Carta was democratic – peers demanding that their prerogatives not be impinged on by the King. Liberal in that they supported open systems and resisted the state. Communitarian in that there was a strong sense of collective identity and responsibility and because one of the key issues for them was whether you were inside or outside their community. Among these types of homogeneous cultures with shared norms, you can develop a rough community consensus.

You do need to understand this culture and history if you want to delve deeply into the politics of DNS and the Internet (not just ICANN). By that I mean if you want to engage in Internet politics at the level of meeting and persuading individual people, then you need to know who are the anointed elders of this culture and what kind of norms exist among this community. But I would not say that this culture is any longer at the HEART of the controversies. It was from 1995-97, but gTLD-MoU and the creation of ICANN was basically the process by which this community came to terms with other political, social and business interests. “Community consensus” after that became a ridiculous and hypocritical notion.

As the theorists of institutional development have demonstrated, the process of forging new institutions is all about fighting over distributional effects—who is favored and who is disadvantaged when rules are defined and governance structures are erected. Of course there could be no consensus at that point. For example, any policy or rule that was favored by Network Solutions could not be agreed by the IAB-IETF elders, and any policy or rule favored by the trademark interests could not be agreed by the civil libertarians. So the invocation of this notion after 1998 shows that either the person is ignorant of what is going on or was trying to appropriate the legitimacy and the norms of the engineering community in a fundamentally dishonest way.

GL: Would it make sense to analyse ICANN (and its predecessors) as a test model for some sort of secretive ‘world government’ that is run by self appointed experts? Could you explain why governments are seen as incapable of running the Internet? This all comes close to a conspiracy theory. I am not at all a fan of such reductionist easy-to-understand explanations. However, the discontent with ‘global governance’ discourse is widespread and it seems that the International Relations experts have little understanding how the Internet is actually run. Where do you think theorization of Internet governance should start?

MM: ICANN is a test model for a global governance structure based on contract rather than territorial jurisdiction. That is an experiment worth having. The problem with ICANN is not that it is secretive. It is far less so than most international intergovernmental organizations. ICANN is in fact very political. It poses governance problems of the first order and directly involves states. It legislates rights, regulates an industry, allocates resources, and is trying to set de jure standards. So there must be political accountability. That means membership, elections, or something.

As for the “governments are incapable of running the Internet” part, the consensus is widespread because of direct experience and deeply engrained memories. Start with the OSI vs. TCP/IP controversy of the 1980s. Then move to Yahoo vs. France, which regardless of which side you take indicates a jurisdictional problem that must, if taken to its logical conclusion, point either toward globalism or toward re-engineering the Internet to conform to territorial jurisdictions.

Now move to the present, as governments start to get aware of ICANN and more involved in it, what do they do? What is the first thing they ask for? Is it defending consumer rights, end user civil liberties? Better representation for the public? No. All they are asking for is their own pound of flesh. Governments want special rights to country names in new TLDs. Intergovernmental organizations want special protection of their acronyms in the name space. Government law enforcement agencies want untrammelled access to user data via Whois. In WSIS, they ask for making ICANN into an intergovernmental organization, so that states can control it, and presumably kick civil society out of all serious deliberations, as they do in WSIS.

This behavior is not an accident or an aberration. Governments participate in Internet governance to further their own power and pursue their own organizational aggrandizement. The emergence of countervailing power centers such as the tech community and ICANN is a good thing.

You’d be surprised at how much of the world is run by small interlocking communities of experts, and naive leftists would no doubt be thoroughly surprised at how poorly the world would work if that were not the case. For example, think of the importance of WiFi standards—those are set by IEEE committees which are non-political and self-governing. Or think of how self-governing the academic community is or wants to be. Usually these kinds of systems work well and stay in the background until their operations create some kind of political problem demanding a more public resolution. This can happen in two ways: a public disaster which causes people to point fingers at responsible parties, or some kind of property rights conflict, which requires public and institutional solutions.

The real issue here is raised by your statement that “International Relations experts have little understanding how the Internet is actually run.” True. The intimate relationship between technical knowledge and governance structures that Lawrence Lessig wrote about creates a space where technical experts assume political power, or policy requires deep knowledge of the technical system. Theorization should start by investigating the way complex, distributed technical systems respond to shape international rules and norms, and vice versa.

GL: In 2000 ICANN organized so-called Membership at Large elections to have members of the Internet community on its board. Soon after they were cancelled. How do look back at this experiment?

MM: I do not consider it a failure. It was an experiment that succeeded. It clearly revealed the preferences of the wider public following Internet governance, and for that reason, it was killed. Everyone involved in ICANN up to that point knew how artificial the representational structure it created was, and how that structure distributed power to a very small, unrepresentative, insulated group. We knew all along—in every forum, from IFWP to the DNSO to the Board selections—that ICANN was under the control of a small, self-selected clique dominated by Joe Sims. It was stunningly obvious to me, at least, that if there ever was a fair and open election conducted among the people involved that this clique would receive an overwhelmingly negative vote.

So the ruling party lost the election. That was perceived as a problem by ICANN management, and the solution was to eliminate elections. The fact that so many have accepted the ex post construction of this, that the election was a “failure,” shows how effective they have been in papering over the message that was sent. I recognize that when some people refer to the “failure” of the elections they are referring to mechanical problems, or more subtly and significantly, to the incursion of nationalistic competition that occurred in Europe and Asia. But again, I would argue that these phenomena were signs of success, not failure.

The mechanical problems occurred because more people registered to vote that ICANN was prepared for. The level of participation surprised even me. Think about the implications of that—a global electorate. Of course, election opponents could have claimed—more reasonably—that a small turnout was a symptom of failure too. If you look at the regional results for Africa, where something like 35 people appointed an ICANN Board member, you get a sense of what a failed election might have looked like.

The election also revealed some issues regarding mass voter registration in China and Japan. But it was unclear whether this was due to attempted manipulation or to language problems which required Asian voters to go to English-language web sites to be enfranchised. Either way, the mechanical and verification issues could be solved. At what price? That was the only real criticism that was ever made of elections. Could ICANN afford to do them? One could debate cost-benefit here, but that was not the debate we had.

As for nationalistic competition (e.g., ICANN membership races between Germany and France, or between China and Japan) here again the election simply revealed in a realistic way the ways in which voters define their preferences. In many parts of the world people still define their identity in national terms and would prefer a candidate from their “own” country. The same was true of any democratic experiment – in U.S. Presidential elections, people are more likely to favor candidates from their own state. So what? One of the most intelligent things that Esther Dyson ever said about ICANN was her comment that the only solution to this was the development of the Internet-governance equivalent of political parties. This would have to occur over the long term, obviously.

GL: Confronted with Internet governance many cyber activists find themselves in a catch 22 situation. On the one hand they do not trust government bureaucrats to run the Internet, out of a justified fear that regulation through multilateral negotiations might lead to censorship and stifle innovation. On the other hand they criticize the corporate agendas of the engineering class that is anything but representative. What models should activists propose in the light of the World Summit on the Information Society? There seems to be no way back to a nation state ‘federalist’ solution. Should they buy into the ‘global civil society’ solution?

MM: This is an excellent question and a big problem. It speaks to the lack of intellectual grounding and the absence of a solid institutional agenda that afflicts so many activists. Do we have alternative and better models for global governance? So much of what happened in the ICANN arena happened by default, because no one had a better proposal that significant groups had converged on and understood the implications of. But the problem goes well beyond Internet governance. In WSIS I see a danger that cyber activism gets linked to an anti-capitalist, anti-globalization movement, which I see as both reactionary and a certain dead end. We need to create new forms of democratic and
liberal institutions at the global level, and tying that agenda to old-style protectionism, statism and discredited neo-Marxist ideologies will take all the energy surrounding that project and flush it down the toilet.

The Catch 22 you mention is not a minor issue: it is fundamental. Do not trust anyone who cannot explicitly address that problem and recognize the negatives of national governments and their inter-national orgs, as well as the problems of the technical and business people. We have to set up structures at the international level that are governmental in nature, but we need creative ideas about how to distribute and balance power.

GL: One of the controversial issues is the power of the U.S. government over the Internet and the fact that, as you write, ICANN is a U.S. government contractor and a private company that operates under U.S. law. The fight over global governance, in part, is about a transfer of U.S. power, if I understand it well, which seems unlikely in this political climate. Is it true that the Pentagon can switch off entire countries, as it was rumoured during the Kosovo conflict and Iraqi war, many people ask. On top of that there is the mistrust between country code top level domains (ccTLDs) and the ICANN staff, who have often been accused of bullying and obstruction in order to further their own aims. Will the U.S. government always, in the last instance, retain vital control over the Internet? Sorry, but like many US-Americans you look so terribly libertarian. You are suspicious of governments, except your own. Perhaps in the end you don’t want to give away sovereignty over the Internet to a non-US body.

MM: Not suspicious of the U.S. Government? Me? Ruling the Rootcalled the U.S. government (USG) residual control of the root a “ticking time bomb” and called for it to be dealt with. Given the USG’s movement toward distinctly unlibertarian attitudes on surveillance, security and war since Ruling the Root’s publication I believe that even more strongly. With or without ICANN, under certain conditions the USG and its allies would be able to switch off entire (marginalized) countries. I have already embarrassed certain members of NTIA by publicly calling for the U.S. to give up its control (instead of privately grumbling about it, which is what most European authorities do), which of course has meant that I am exiled from certain key policy circles. The only thing holding me and certain other critics of ICANN back is that ICANN’s current representational structure is so warped that we fear turning it loose completely. At least now, the residual USG control provides some third party oversight, however pathetic. And to be honest, the deeper I have delved into this situation the more I have come to believe that the OECD states, while perhaps ambivalent, are fully acquiescent in the USG’s current position. This is a kind of hypocrisy that any student of international relations is used to seeing: let the USG take the lead, complain smugly to relevant constituencies about those darn Americans, while privately getting a few key concessions out of them and thanking your lucky stars that they have to take the responsibilities instead of you. It is also worth emphasizing strongly that simple jealousy of US dominance is no substitute for a coherent policy regarding governance. The issue is the distribution of power, not nationality. An Internet governance system dominated by the EU or China or Brazil might make Europeans, Chinese or Brazilians happier (or would it?) but it would hardly be more just.

GL: Are you really suggesting that all anti-corporate protesters want to return to an old school government control model? These movements are very diverse. I can assure you that you are making a caricature. People have moved on from the cliches you repeat here and look for ‘another world’. Why don’t you stress that?

MM: I know that the protesters are diverse. I know full well that most of them do not want, or would say they do not want, to return to old models. But that is a lot easier to say than it is to pull off. I am talking about a process that I have seen happen before; that I have witnessed first-hand in the 1970s. A mass movement forms, with wide appeal, based on a vague and inchoate sense of dissatisfaction with some aspect of society. The movement itself is diverse and non-ideological, but over time those with a well-defined ideology and a strong commitment take control of its direction, because only a coherent ideology provides the strategic guidance needed as things progress.

I said above I saw a “danger;” the danger is that instead of doing new thinking about global institutions and the relationship between market, government and society we fall back into re-asserting the old left-right dichotomy. I am not caricaturing any participants in current processes; I am just asserting that this could happen.

You can easily get a sense from your own language as to how it could happen. You characterize them as “anti-corporate” protestors. What does it mean to be “anti-corporate?” A corporation is a legal form of commercial organization that limits the directors’ personal liability. You probably can’t have an industrial economy, much less a post-industrial one, without that. To be “for” or “against” corporations is meaningless because on any given communication-information policy issue, you can find various corporations on different sides. That idea that corporations per se are the problem isn’t tenable; whatever those folks are protesting, it isn’t “corporations.”

Of course, I know what you mean: “anti-corporate” is just a stand-in for a wide complex of cultural and political beliefs, involving sentiments of humanism, environmentalism, support for cultural diversity, and opposition to commercialism, vaguely “democratic” sentiments and, oftentimes, individual rights and freedoms. But a litany of “good things” is not enough to transform the world. A question I like to ask is, what does “democracy” mean at the global level? A global electorate? Avenues for civil society participation? Better representation within intergovernmental organizations? If you can’t answer that question readily, there are lots of vested interests who will answer it for you.

Social movements create the instabilities and political opportunities that make change possible; but at critical junctures one must come forward with specific institutional structures, laws, policies and develop support for them. That is where I see a danger. It is very easy for the agenda of anti-free trade protestors to be coopted by simple protectionism – in fact, that is already happening. It is very easy for an emotional “anti-corporate”-ism to be coopted by simple state regulation or state socialism. Governments are still very powerful and so are the special interests that thrive on protectionism. That will happen unless a new ideology with a more sophisticated institutional agenda is put forward. Good intentions are not enough. At the very least, I would hope that in the post-communist, post-totalitarian world we can lay to rest the issue of market allocation and the price system and look for institutions and policies that improve things within that framework. And we need to recognize the important contributions that freedom of trade and investment has made in developing the telecommunications infrastructure.

GL: Your recent research project looks into media activism and how “civil society groups” can operate on a transnational level. What is your opinion about “global civil society,” the role of NGOs and their alleged lack of accountability. Should there be a Greenpeace of cyberspace that can operate on a global level. So far no one can match the power of transnational corporations such as MCI/WorldCom, BT or Microsoft. Is the global NGO model the way to go? Will you eventually link this topic with issues of Internet governance?

MM: That research project (typically of me) took on a huge problem of the sort that takes at least five years to produce much of substance, yet this was done at a time when everyone aware of it (justifiably) wants instant results. I investigated the concept of “media activism” in order to destroy it and replace it with a new self-concept that tried to synthesize advocacy around all areas of communications and information technology policy. Like the concept of “environmentalism” such a movement should be able to encompass all the technical subareas such as privacy, IPR, freedom of information, telecom infrastructure regulation and policy as well as the traditional mass media issues. Of course, the smarter “media” activists were already doing that or moving in that direction, but labels are important.

My opinion is that the concept of “global civil society” is probably the best point of departure we have right now for motivating transnational collective action. I particularly like the formulation of John Keane ( The alternatives to civil society seem to be religion (e.g., Islamic fundamentalism) anti-capitalism (which at this stage of the game probably belongs in the religion category), or some kind of racism. To me, the issue is less one of substantive policy positions (which only have meaning in a specific institutional context) than it is one of institution-building at the international level.

I am unimpressed with the complaints about the “lack of accountability” of NGOs and civil society representatives. Of course it is entirely true—but also entirely unavoidable at this stage. Institutions are what create accountability, and if the global institutional environment does not provide any means for formal representation of non-governmental and non-corporate interests then of course the ones that assert themselves into the process are “formally” not accountable. We are dealing with a form of entrepreneurial politics at the transnational level, where those who have the intelligence, persistence and resources to participate are the ones who get to define the agenda. The fact that such activity can emerge out of the interstices of the system is a good thing. Longer term, there will be more accountability. Of course I link analysis of transnational collective action in communication-information to the problem of Internet governance, as well as WSIS, and other arenas. Internet governance is particularly interesting because of the institutional innovation it attempted, although the policy issues it poses are somewhat obscure.

GL: So you are saying, act now, democratize later? Sounds a bit like global land grabbing to me, in the hope that a ‘good’ elite and not the bad boys will be in charge. Who are the potentially interesting antagonists in this saga? Not the Internet Society, I suppose.

MM: You say, “act now, democratize later” and it sounds bad. But let me respond by asking: if you don’t act, how can you ever democratize? And are you saying that no one should act until and unless they are sure that their agenda and their organizations are perfectly representative? Seems like a recipe for paralysis.

GL: How do you look at WSIS? Some see this event as a desperate attempt by ITU-circles to regain ground they lost in the nineties. However, there are not much indications for that. Others see it as a painful demonstration of the global inability to address the real issues and a useless, politically correct Digital Divide circus. I have the impression that, for instance, activists do not quite know what to make of it. Of course there is the neo-liberal agenda around intellectual property rights but apart from that the ‘information society’ is still in search for topics and controversies. This is not the time for United Nations conferences. Would you agree?

MM: In the research project you mention above I will attempt to situate WSIS in historical context, relating it to the UNESCO New World Information and Communications Order of the 1970s. My initial view of it was almost exactly as you describe above: a politically correct Digital Divide circus, similar to the DOT Force, where fine noises would be made and nothing would happen. I still believe that nothing concrete will come of it, but as an institutional development process I am finding it more interesting. I think the small tactical opening that was given to civil society has been important, and that the civil society activity associated with WSIS has already stolen the show. WSIS thus provides a fertile field for an emergent communication-information movement to come into contact and in an initial confrontation with traditional IGOs, develop a stronger sense of where to go next.

GL:  Ever since the first World Summit on the Information Society  in Geneva, held in December 2003, your interest in the process aspect of such a world summit has grown. Has it?

MM: It is true that I have become more deeply engaged in the WSIS civil society process, and especially the Internet Governance caucus of WSIS civil society. This happened because Internet governance moved to the center of the WSIS stage after the 2003 summit. I and others felt that the WSIS-CS Internet governance caucus was too much of a small clique and too timid in developing policy positions. Early on, it tended to be dominated by people who wanted to shield ICANN from WSIS. So with my colleagues Hans Klein, John Mathiason, Derrick Cogburn and Marc Holitscher, the Internet Governance Project was formed. Its purpose was and is to provide policy analysis capacity to WSIS civil society on Internet governance issues.

Many civil society actors who became involved in the first phase of WSIS have had a great deal of trouble relating to the key issues of the second phase, especially internet governance. In the first phase, civil society dealt with very broad social norms around such issues as “digital divide,” gender, communication rights and so on. Internet governance, on the other hand, is a very specific institutional and political struggle that requires knowledge of how policy issues are related to technical systems.

One of the most interesting issues in the second phase was the process used by the Internet governance caucus to recommend names to the UN Secretary-General regarding who would represent civil society on the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG). In this case, civil society’s organic structures (caucuses and working groups) interacted with the official UN structure not just in a consultative or advocacy role. It had to produce a real decision – a list of recommended names – and of course that decision was highly political, as the composition of the WGIG would affect its output. Many people wanted to be on the WGIG and not all of them could be, so competition for nominations was keen.

The process illustrated both the strengths and the weaknesses of civil society engagement with international institutions. On the strong side, the leaders of the internet governance caucus developed and cultivated a very close relationship with Markus Kummer, the Swiss diplomat who served as the secretariat of the WGIG. In return, Kummer didn’t do anything with input from other civil society entities and privileged the recommendations of the Internet governance caucus. To everyone’s amazement, virtually all of the names forwarded by the caucus were placed on the Working Group (many of us had assumed that only a few names would be selected from any list we developed). Most importantly, the people selected by the caucus have proved to be among the most informed and productive performers on the working group. I am referring to people like Karen Banks, Carlos Afonso, Wolfgang Kleinwachter, William Drake, Avri Doria and Raul Echeberria, to name a few of the most active ones. They also have done a fairly good job of consulting with other members of civil society in formulating positions. An active dialogue has been maintained on the caucus list regarding policy positions. The Internet Governance Project has contributed significantly to the advancement of that dialogue but so has the expertise of the other parties.

As a weakness, the process revealed WSIS civil society’s lack of institutional capacity; by which I mean its inability to develop and follow an objective process, and its reliance on close-knit groups of friends rather than objective procedures to make decisions. The co-coordinators of the Internet governance caucus failed to define a nomination procedure until the last minute, and ultimately the process they used was so improvised and arbitrary that hard feelings and conflict were created. Indeed, they might have failed to come up with a procedure altogether had not their hand been forced by actions taken by ICANN’s Noncommercial Users Constituency (NCUC). NCUC, which has a structure of elected officers, instituted its own process of nominating civil society people to the WGIG. Because of the existence of a charter and formally nominated and legitimated officers, this process went very smoothly. This seems to have prompted the caucus leaders to institute, finally, a selection/nomination procedure. But the procedure the caucus proposed was vague, rushed, and required improvisation during the crucial end game. Some parties, notably the free software groups, felt they had not been treated fairly. The Latin American caucus split over the selection process, too, although this may have happened regardless of the procedure used.

The point here is in some sense an obvious one, but one that many civil society actors still seem unwilling to face and accept: civil society engagement in policy making processes of global governance requires that consequential decisions be made by “civil society” as a collectivity. Unless there are procedures and rules for organizing “civil society,” it will be incapable of responding to those requirements without huge upheavals and struggles among itself. But once it “bureaucratizes” itself by creating those structures, is it still “civil society?”

GL: Do you still feel that you have a deeply US-American viewpoint on Internet governance or is it politically not correct to ask about one’s own cultural bias? Obviously it is hard for everyone to jump over one’s own shadow.

MM: Of course my radically liberal approach to free expression and other civil liberties, my anti-statism and anti-militarism and my belief in economic freedom is deeply rooted in Anglo-American political traditions, going back to Locke and Jefferson. But I have been exposed to non-American perspectives for many, many years. From 1989 I lived in Hong Kong and China and studied the policy environments there. I know about Maoism and have observed first-hand the effects of British colonialism on economics and policy. I’ve done international comparative studies of telecommunications policies since the early 1990s. I confess a visceral dislike of ponderous, clubby European notions of corporatism and “co-regulation,” but also feel increasingly alienated from the position of the US government and US business interests, who have abandoned the ideals the country claims to have been founded on. And I’ve recognized for years the difficulty many Americans have viewing Internet issues from a standpoint that transcends their own national perspective, because it is just a pale reflection of the same trouble they have in foreign policy. But hey, ordinary Europeans are probably as nationalistic as ordinary Americans. Most Geneva-based international organizations are Eurocentric in outlook. Asians are more nationalistic than Europeans and Americans.

GL:  The Internet Governance debate seems not to have transcended beyond stereotypes like ‘Californian neo-liberal corporates defending the medium of the free West against power-hungry Chinese communist party censors and crusty UN burocrats.’ How could we move on from these clichés?

MM: Don’t forget: there are censors, inside and outside China, who would like to control the Internet. And the UN bureaucracy is annoying and plodding. That being said, these observations have very little relevance to the Internet governance debate, because the UN is in no position to control anything.

One good result of the WGIG process is that the involved international community has already moved beyond those clichés. No one is proposing that the UN control the Internet. There is growing consensus that control of the DNS root needs to be internationalized. It’s hypocritical to talk about how terrible governments are when one government, the most powerful one in the world by any measure, holds unilateral power over one aspect of the Internet. Also, people have learned that just because ICANN is private does not means that it is a “free market, liberal” solution. ICANN is a regulatory agency with centralized control of key aspects of the Internet. And the work of NCUC on privacy and the Whois database is beginning to make it clearer and clearer that it is the US government and US-based IPR interests that want to exploit their control of current Internet governance arrangements for surveillance and regulation. So the “government control” rhetoric can be and is being turned against them.

We will debate these clichés again, however, during the next stage, when or if the WGIG proposes something useful and WSIS adopts it. The debate will move into a broader public and people who want to prevent change will raise those old arguments again. That renewed debate is why it is important that the WGIG propose something more substantive than the creation of some poorly-defined new discussion forum. Creating a new bureaucracy will be hard to sell to a broader public; it will look like just expanding the UN bureaucracy to cater to a bunch of would-be regulators. There is already an alphabet soup of UN agencies with authority over different parts of the Internet and communications, and the solution is to create another one?

GL: Recently, as a part of the Internet Governance Project, you have launched the surprising idea that ICANN and ITU should compete with each other. You wrote: “People in the US Internet community love to beat up on the ITU, and I am not a big fan of it as an organization myself. The fact remains, however, that a lot of countries, especially developing ones, see it as a more legitimate forum for policy making and administration. So if ICANN and ITU represent two radically different governance regimes, why not let them compete with each other?” So instead of dialogue and compromise, which are vital parts of the dominant ‘multistakeholder’ approach, you suggest the opposite: competition. Would this go through a tender system, for instance?

MM: Actually, ICANN-ITU “competition” would constitute an important form of compromise. What you have now is a “winner take all” power struggle between the intergovernmental system of ITU and the private sector-led system of ICANN. We’d like to see that destructive power struggle end. A workable international regime might resolve this conflict by permitting both to co-exist and giving the key actors a choice among the two. One might be able to retain the best of both worlds.

Anyway, we need to talk about the whole proposal, not just the ITU – ICANN competition idea. We proposed reinstating democratic elections for ICANN’s Board. To our surprise, we learned that many official representatives of civil society in the Internet governance caucus were unwilling to support that. But I think our proposal stiffened their spine a bit and we are now seeing support consolidate. We also proposed reforms in ICANN’s constituency structure and the abolition of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

Regarding your reference to “multistakeholderism,” I am starting the hate the word. As a catch word it serves as a Rorschach blob – everyone can see whatever they want in it. The word papers over the really difficult questions about institutional arrangements, power and rights. The point is not “stakeholders” representation per se.  The point is individual rights and democratic procedure. Sometimes – many times, in fact – those bigger causes are advanced by permitting civil society to participate more fully in institutions that were once restricted to governments. But let’s not fetishize those simple advances. Let’s use them to institutionalize greater advances in global governance that facilitate freedom.

Some of the leaders of civil society in the WGIG would like for the final outcome of WGIG to be the creation of a new international organization which will serve as a “multistakeholder forum.” My colleagues in the Internet Governance Project, in contrast, are advocating an international framework convention as the best next step. This would require governments to negotiate a set of globally agreed principles and norms regarding the governance of the Internet. This would turn the momentum of WSIS/WGIG into a lasting, influential process of institutional change at the international level.

Both ideas have strengths and weaknesses. A new discussion forum would facilitate continued participation by civil society groups, but might become irrelevant unless it has real power, which probably isn’t possible due to rivalries with existing international organizations and their constituencies. A framework convention might be too government-centric, (although the process can be designed to include civil society) and some have argued that the parties are not ready for that level of negotiation.

Milton Mueller’s homepage:

His global civil society research:


The Internet Governance