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Internet Governance
At the heart of the matter...

Interview with Markus Kummer (Switzerland)
Head, Secretariat of the United Nations Working Group on Internet Governance

Markus Kummer is a career diplomat, who has served as eEnvoy of the Swiss Foreign Ministry in Bern since April 2002. His main tasks include foreign policy coordination in the area of information and communication technologies, in general, and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), in particular. He chaired the negotiating group that developed an agreed text on Internet governance for the WSIS Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action in December 2003. As requested last December by the World Summit on the Information Society, the United Nations Secretary-General is to set up a Working Group on Internet Governance that would be open, transparent and inclusive. On 25 March 2004, the United Nations Secretary-General appointed Mr Kummer to head the Secretariat that will support the future Working Group on Internet Governance. This Secretariat has been established in Geneva at the Palais des Nations. Worldwide consultations have been going on since the beginning of the year to prepare the ground for this future working group that is to report to the second phase of WSIS, to be held in Tunis in 2005. Mr Kummer says: “The time-frame is very short indeed. And the task ahead of us is daunting.”

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Internet governance emerged late in the negotiations as a major issue that threatened to make or break the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva last December. Mr Kummer, you helped the Summit reach a compromise. As the debate on future governance of the Internet heats up, and looking back at the negotiations, what is the crux of the matter and who are the protagonists?

The Internet is a complex phenomenon with a long tradition of self-regulation. It was clear from the negotiations that the “Internet community” and many in the business sector are very much attached to this tradition, as are a number of governments. On the other hand are governments who increasingly feel they need to have a larger say in how the Internet is managed and internationally coordinated, particularly with regard to convergence with telephone networks. This includes certain aspects of the technical infrastructure, mainly those having a direct impact on national policies and international political issues, as well as concerns related to Internet content (e.g., spam and offensive content).

One of the issues that was mentioned repeatedly in the negotiations was the allocation and management of the so-called ccTLDs (country code Top Level Domains, such as “.ch” for Switzerland).

“It is a positive sign that countries are discussing how to run the Internet, since it requires global solutions to its problems. Clearly, the old utopian dream that the Internet would undermine the very notion of the nation state belongs in the dustbin of history. The reality is rather more mundane: the sorts of disagreements that characterize other global issues such as trade, the environment and human rights, are now migrating to the network, as the Internet becomes part of the fabric of everyday life.”

The Economist reporting on the Internet governance debates at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in December 2003.

It might be argued that this increased interest by governments is a triumph for the Internet and a sign of the importance the Internet has gained in our lives. Governments now feel that the Internet has become so important that it should be regarded as a matter of national interest. And so they see the need for getting involved. It is not surprising that governments want to deal with matters they consider to be of national interest. The governments who want to play a more active role also see a need for closer international cooperation. They feel that the United Nations is the natural system of global governance and they hold the view that a UN umbrella would be a prerequisite to give the necessary political legitimacy to Internet governance. As it happens, this increased interest of governments also indicates that some of them feel left out. The present multi-layered structure, based on a multi-stakeholder approach, is very complex, making it a challenging task even for developed countries but more so for developing countries to keep track. This problem is not restricted to Internet issues: it is never easy for developing economies to follow complex processes and negotiations. They usually have limited human and financial resources and, therefore, have to rely on small diplomatic missions. This means that their diplomats have to cover many issues in many different organizations. They usually find it hard to know what is happening. For instance, as regards trade, it is an almost impossible task for a small diplomatic mission to keep abreast of all the ongoing developments within the World Trade Organization (WTO). But at least they have staff assigned to WTO, who, if nothing more, are able to relay information back to capitals. The Internet is different. Its very structure makes it difficult to follow developments. This may well be one of the very practical reasons why some governments want ITU to continue to be more closely involved, as here in Geneva they have diplomatic missions and staff familiar with issues related to international communications.

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Internet governance negotiations have revealed two schools of thought...

What is to be understood by “Internet governance”? And why so much focus on this issue and not, for example, on how the Internet is used and abused?

During the first phase of WSIS in Geneva, we were not really ready to discuss what we meant by “Internet governance” and the “public policy issues” related to it. In particular, we were unable to spell out whether we were thinking about a narrow, technical definition, or whether we were referring to a broad definition, including issues such as network security, interconnection, intellectual property rights, consumer and data protection or the multilingualism of the Internet. All these issues are linked to the question of use and abuse of the Internet. They are listed in both the Declaration of Principles and the Plan of Action and they are considered by many as falling under the term “Internet governance.” It will be up to the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) to decide whether to include them into the scope of its mandate.

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In one school of thought are some developing countries seeking a multilateral forum with various stakeholders, preferably within the United Nations system. Those countries view Internet governance as an issue closely tied to national sovereignty

How do the two schools of thought you have mentioned perceive the present Internet governance model?

Again, looking back at the negotiations in Geneva, it was essentially a question of how governments should be involved at an international level. The reasoning behind these two schools of thought could be summed up as follows:

The first group argued that at national level, governments played a coordination role and that they had a platform for a dialogue with the various stakeholders. They pointed out that at the international level, however, there was no such forum for interaction. They stressed the need for establishing a multilateral rules-based framework, preferably with the legitimacy of the UN system. This would not replace any existing mechanism, nor infringe on the work of any existing organization, but would be complementary and deal with policy issues. Furthermore, these delegations felt that Internet governance related fundamentally to national sovereignty.

The other group highlighted that the present system worked well and so before trying to solve a problem it would be necessary to know what the problem really is. Their message was: “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. On the whole, these delegations insisted on the importance of full and active involvement of the private sector and all stakeholders.

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In the other school of thought are those who say that the present system, which is private-sector driven, is not broken. And so, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”

The Geneva Declaration laid the conceptual groundwork for any future form of Internet governance by recognizing a number of principles. How would you describe these principles?

They are basically traditional principles of international cooperation, such as transparency and democracy. They also introduce some Internet-specific aspects, such as the recognition that the Internet by now is a global facility. Furthermore, these principles recognize the multi-stakeholder character of the Internet by emphasizing that its management should fully involve governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations.

Are all stakeholders willing to embrace these core principles and to come to terms with an Internet governance model that is inclusive and responsive to the needs of all countries, developed and developing, or will the vested interests of some players continue to push for the status quo?

So far, no one has challenged the validity of these principles, which were approved by political leaders at the very highest level. These principles will be useful and important benchmarks in the work of WGIG.

When will the United Nations-led Working Group on Internet Governance be set up? And what will be the scope of its mandate?

WGIG should be selected through an open-ended and transparent process and be set up by October 2004.The two documents adopted in Geneva set the parameters for the Working Group and contain the scope of its mandate. Its main task is to draft a report with recommendations for possible action. WGIG is specifically asked to accomplish the following:

  • Develop a working definition of Internet governance.
  • Identify the public policy issues that are relevant to Internet governance.
  • Develop a common understanding of the respective roles and responsibilities of governments, existing international organizations and other forums as well as the private sector and civil society from both developing and developed countries.

Several events have been held since February 2004 in a bid to contribute to worldwide consultations to prepare the ground for the Working Group on Internet Governance. Have these events framed or defined the issues facing Internet governance in any clear way?

It would be premature to draw conclusions from these events, but nevertheless I feel that we can note some small developments. I participated in two major events: an ITU workshop on Internet governance in February and the Global Forum on Internet Governance organized by the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Task Force in New York in March. I also took part in discussions on Internet governance during ITU TELECOM AFRICA 2004 in Cairo in May and the annual meeting of the Internet Society in Barcelona, also in May. The common denominator coming out of all these events is the fact that there is now a willingness to engage in a constructive dialogue. There is also a growing recognition that there may well be some merit in recognizing the role of governments. However, this is only the beginning of a process and we have to be careful not to read too much into these early discussions. The general position of the two schools of thought remains the same. Furthermore, the general thrust of the discussions so far seems to indicate that there is a preference to approach the issue in a wide perspective, looking at a broad-based definition of Internet governance.

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These seem like many complex issues. As Head of the Secretariat for the Working Group on Internet Governance, do you consider the time-frame of reporting to the Tunis phase of the Summit in November 2005 realistic?

The time-frame is very short indeed. Similar groups or commissions are usually given more time. However, we have to recognize that our timetable is not negotiable and we will have to deliver a report in order to meet the deadline. Of course, this means that we may not be able to be as thorough as we might wish to be. But we have to respect the political parameters set by the Geneva Summit.

What are the next steps?

During the next few months, both the Secretariat and WGIG will need to be set up. The Secretariat is expected to start functioning as a small core group as from July 2004. It will gradually be completed and should be fully operational by October 2004. Its first activity will be to assist the Secretary-General of the United Nations with the nomination of WGIG. To this end, it will be necessary to hold broad-based consultations on the profile of its members and on how best to structure its work. WGIG will need to be balanced with regard to various criteria such as geographical, gender and stakeholder representation.



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