Interview with Milton Mueller

Trail 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.

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.

Milton Mueller’s homepage:
His global civil society research: