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30 September 2011

Is there a need for a new international body to oversight the management of the Internet?

This was one of the questions addressed during the Managing critical internet resources plenary session, in the context of a discussion on a recent draft proposal of India, Brasil and South Africa (already widely known as the IBSA proposal).

According to this document, the three governments are arguing that “an appropriate body is urgently required in the UN system to coordinate and evolve coherent and integrated global public policies pertaining to the Internet”. The new body would have the task of developing and establishing international public policies with a view to ensuring coordination and coherence in cross-cutting Internet-related global  issues and would integrate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the Internet, including global standards.

How was this proposal received by the large Internet community? Judging only by the short discussion that took place today during the plenary, I would say that not well at all. It was argued that the creation of such a new body would be an unfortunate decision to take, which would take all Internet governance processes several years back.  Although it was somehow agreed that the ability of many governments to give their inputs and to comments in Internet governance fora and organizations might be limited, these fora and organizations are improving themselves and that all the existing problems can be addressed within the existing frameworks, without the need to create a new body.

Many people argued that, although the IBSA proposal sent a strong message that the three countries are not satisfied with the existing processes,  it is not clear which of these processes is not working  and what are the improvements that need to be made.  Other questions were also raised: how would  the new body practically liaise with the existing ones? what would happen with the multistakeholder process that is currently being promoted within ICANN and IGF, for example?  if the new body is an intergovernmental one, isn’t there a risk that the governments would reach agreements within themselves at the detriment of other stakeholders? how will the new intergovernmental body consistently protect human rights?

In response to all these concerns, the Indian government representatives outlined the fact that the “proposal” is barely a “draft document”, which has not formally been agreed upon between IBSA governments, but only made public in order to generate comments and reactions from other stakeholders. Regarding the main concern of the three countries, the Indian representative made it clear that it is difficult for developing countries to attend the various fora and meetings of different organizations which discuss and/or elaborate Internet related policies and that the existence of a single body addressing all the issues currently addressed within different frameworks would facilitate and improve the participation of developing countries. The representative argued that it is time the Internet was governed by all communities and economies in the world, no matter how small they are.

The discussion ended with no clear conclusion, with the different parties  trying to defend their own views and bring counter-arguments to the views of the others. The IBSA countries may present their proposals to the UN General Assembly in the current form or in an improved one, or may not present them at all. This remains to be seen. But it is rather clear that not all Internet governance stakeholders are satisfied with the current formats and that, as long as this happens, proposals like the IBSA one will continue to appear.

As a final note, I will just paraphrase the US government representative and let everybody think about this: “governments can and should be involved in Internet governance processes, but there are ways this can be achieved within the current frameworks.”

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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