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<nettime> Vittorio Bertola: WSIS: What Is It 'Really' All About?
geert lovink on Mon, 29 Dec 2003 07:47:28 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Vittorio Bertola: WSIS: What Is It 'Really' All About?

Vittorio Bertola: WSIS: What Is It 'Really' All About?

Until a few weeks ago, almost everyone in the Internet governance circus
seemed to ignore the very existence of WSIS. After it popped up on
international newspapers, however, things have been changing; and suddenly,
I have started noticing plenty of negative reactions, on the lines of "we
don't need WSIS, we don't need the UN, we don't need governments, we don't
need internationalization - just go away from our network". However, I often
find that these reactions are based on fundamental misunderstandings of the
issues at stake; so please let me offer a different perspective.

First of all, WSIS is an eminently political process, talking about
political problems. The issue here is not how to make the Internet work
best - forget about that. The issue mostly is how to redistribute power and
control about what is done with the Internet and how, without breaking its
technical functionality too much.

To technical people, this of course seems like a useless nonsense; this is
possibly one of the reasons behind the span of negative reactions.

Personally speaking, my opinion is quite the opposite; I think that the
problems that were raised in WSIS are real, and also, extremely important.
The failure by many to understand or even accept them is, in my opinion,
quite worrying.

Let me make examples. In a previous post on CircleID, I have seen another
commenter ask a number of questions, including this one: "4. The Plan of
Action also calls for regional root servers. What is the advantage of
promoting regional root servers, what benefits will they provide to Internet

I guess that the person making the question does not see any advantage for
such thing - and in fact, there is not a credible advantage for such a
change in technical terms. However, regional root servers have a clear and
compelling motivation in political terms; to put it simply and directly, if
a war (military or commercial) breaks up between your country and the United
States of America, you won't risk your economy collapsing and your
communications dying off because all Internet domain names suddenly stop to
resolve or point somewhere else as desired by your enemy.

And of course, this is a problem you can't even figure out if your country
is the United States of America, which explains why so many people in the
Internet industry fail to understand what WSIS is about. (Or, sometimes,
pretend to do so.)

So, let's take another fundamental question that was previously posed: "What
benefits does the United Nations offer over ICANN?"

Now, this question again shows a fundamental misunderstanding. We're not
talking about a frequent flyer program, where you choose the one that gives
you the biggest rewards; we're talking about control of a strategic
resource, which is fundamental to each country for internal economical
growth and for the circulation of ideas, news, know-how.

If we believe that the Internet is really for everyone, then it must be
under the control of everyone - not just under the control of a few
enlightened people from a few developed countries. And, like it or not, the
citizens of the world - including those who can't afford a computer yet -
are, and can only be, represented by their governments.

So, I'm not denying the practical objections that are being made to a direct
governmental administration of the Internet, and in fact I do support them;
an intergovernmental administration of the Internet would likely to be a
tragedy for everyone; and anyway, the most effective "Internet governance"
action for me in 2003 was installing SpamAssassin on my mail server - which
reminds me that, in practical terms, Internet governance is the sum of a
huge number of distributed collective actions. However, you have to
understand and solve the political problem, before you can propose any
practical solution that can work happily and globally in the long term.

And by the way, if you look at the past history of ICANN, you will see that
its actual openness, transparency, and support for the general public
interest has often been questionable; the lack of direct involvement by
governments has mostly meant that control has been left in the hands of a
few powerful lobbies. While I doubt that, in an UN/governmental system,
average Internet users would have more power than they have now, I also
doubt that they could have much less.

This is why I think that just saying "governmental administration won't work
in practice" is not an answer to the real problem being raised at WSIS; and
that ICANN itself should be the first and foremost promoter of yet another
reform period, where its initial idea - a partnership between governments,
industry, and users - can be upheld and evolved into a truly international
structure, independent from any single country or interest group,
multilingual, and immensely more diverse than ICANN is now.


(Vittorio Bertola is presently the Chairman of ICANN's At Large Advisory
Committee, the newly created body that will advocate the interests of the
individual users in the reformed ICANN. He has been involved with various
roles in other At Large-related committees and organizations, in
policy-making for the .it top-level domain and in the Italian chapter of the
Internet Society. He is an engineer and technical manager, and has recently
founded Dynamic Fun, a new company in the field of wireless entertainment,
after serving as Vice President for Technology of the Vitaminic group, the
European leader in digital music distribution.)

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