THE BLOG

Notes from Tunis -- the New Internet Governance Forum

I'm in Tunis at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), where the biggest debate is over the future of "Internet Governance." The final text for this was agreed upon about 30 minutes ago.

The two quick sounds bites are that (1) the US and the US based Internet Corporation for Domain Names and Numbers (ICANN) retain, for now, control over the most important aspects of the global Internet Domain Name System (DNS), and (2) the conversation over this issue and a surprisingly broader governance agenda is continuing, under the United Nations.

The Tunis resolution will create a new "multi-stakeholder" Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This new entity will include governments, various UN agencies, businesses and civil society. It's first meeting will be held in Athens sometime next year. Kofi Annan has been asked to make it happen, under a fairly complex but open-ended terms of reference.

The new IGF is, in my opinion, a pretty important development. It is supposed to provide a space where virtually any Internet governance issue can be discussed. And while it is not supposed to be a body that has any binding authority, it will be influential.

Businesses tried to set up their own such forums several times in the past seven years under such names as the Internet Law and Policy Forum, or the Global Business Dialogue on Electronic Commerce. These groups were pretty effective in lobbying governments and influencing global norms, but lacked real legitimacy, for obvious reasons.

Right after the final negotiation on the WSIS Internet Governance text ended, a few minutes ago, two top US officals held a press conference -- Ambassador David A Gross from the Department of State and Michael Gallagher from the US Department of Commerce. They were pumped up about retaining control over ICANN and the DNS, but then talked about the new IGF.

They said it would be a place where people could talk about Spam, identify theft, consumer protection, and a million other things. At one point Gallagher mentioned the US had a treaty on spam with the UK, which was news to me. Then he said it was really a tri-lateral agreement on spam with Australia, the UK and the US.

I asked Gallagher, would the US consider expanding the tri-lateral agreement on spam to a multilateral agreement with many more countries. He said, sure. It would be particularly useful to do so in countries that did not have good spam laws, he said. I then asked, what about Athens, could such an agreement be discussed at Athens? He said yes, that would be a good example of what could be done in the IGF.

This is just an example, but a telling one. It would seem as though there is now a new place that is sort of a global town hall, with governments very much involved, but open to civil society too, where people are going to raise issues, and try to craft solutions.

People are going to have to think about what this means, and where it will go.

Right now I'm going to get some sleep.