There's been a global argument going on for some time now over how the Internet should be governed. Many governments, including China but also many others, are not happy that the "root" of the Internet is controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which ultimately answers to the U.S. Department of Commerce. In 2005, there were proposals from various countries to move Internet governance from ICANN to a United Nations body of some kind, or something that would give more representation and power to a variety of governments. But there was no consensus. Human rights groups were rightly concerned that giving governments like China and Iran greater say in Internet governance would lead to more censorship and the elimination of privacy and anonymity. At the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, local dissidents got roughed up, a workshop on free expression nearly got shut down by the host government, and governments agreed to stick with the ICANN-led status quo for lack of any reasonable consensus. The Internet Governance Forum was formed as a platform to continue consultation and feedback from governments and a range of "civil society" groups, including coalitions calling for the protection of human rights and free speech.
At an IGF preparatory meeting in Geneva on Wednesday, China called for a disbandment of the IGF, on the grounds that it's useless. The full transcript of the proceeding his here. An archive of the webcast is here. Below are China's two statements in full. I've bolded some of the key parts. Note the discussion of Internet censorship at the end:
CHINA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. On behalf of the delegation of China, I would like to present the position of the government of China on the fourth session of the IGF.
First of all, on the title -- the global title of the meeting, the delegation of China prefers the proposal put forward by Egypt, "Internet, an opportunity for all." We think that this topic is very closely linked to the international financial crisis we're going through at the moment. And in addition, it proves that the United Nations continue to work in order to promote the Internet. As we have said in February, the rights and principles for Internet is not an appropriate theme because the words "rights and principles" don't have an appropriate definition. As a meeting of the United Nations, it is not appropriate to adopt a theme which is not properly defined.
And on this matter, we suggest that we discuss the definition of "rights and principles" first of all, the workshop level.
Honorable Chairman, secondly, on the management of critical resources, the delegation of China feels that, first of all, the title of this theme should be "managing the critical Internet resources."
We feel that this title has been defined last year, after extensive discussions. And we think that this is a fairly neutral title. At the same time, it is a very sensitive theme, and we would suggest that we continue using this title this year.
Also, we would like to stress the fact that under the theme of "critical Internet resource management," we think that JPA is a very important theme and that it's not because we're going to reexamine JPA in September that we can't discuss it at the fourth session of the IGF. On the opposite, it's because we're going to do this in September that we should do it in IGF, too.
Thirdly, now, as to security, the delegation of China feels that this is a very important question. At the present time, security in the Internet, on the Internet and cybercrime is something that has become a worldwide enemy. And here we need to talk about regrouping the energies and resources of all parties concerned and to strengthen the international mechanism in order to promote security and stability for the Internet at the worldwide level.
We also think that there are some vital matters that have not been incorporated on this theme, for instance, how do we promote open source or intellectual property or traditional library resources. These are all very important questions in order to promote dissemination of knowledge.
We also think that this is a theme which should be discussed in the opening title.
We have also noted that some have talked about the URL blocking. On the URL blocking, this is a very sensitive matter.
In order to guarantee the security of states and to guarantee the interests of citizens to fight against terrorism and other crimes, all countries have the right to filter the contents of certain Internet sites. And I think that this is something that all countries are in the process of doing.
IGF as a meeting hosted, under the auspices of the United Nations, talks about URL blocking. Now, will this give an impression to the outside world that the United Nations are against content blocking? Are the U.N. against the practice of certain states filtering some Internet sites so that when we talk about "blocking," should the theme of blocking be incorporated in our IGF meeting? We have to be very careful about that.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
A second statement came in the afternoon session:
This afternoon, we are talking about the value of the IGF. And that's a very important question. The delegation of China has followed very carefully the previous statements made.
And now the delegation would like to make the following points. Firstly, we very much appreciate the secretariat for their excellent work. We agree in principle with what has been said by previous speakers on the specific aims of the IGF. We feel that the IGF has contributed a great deal in light of its historic mandate. But we have also noted the -- that the essence of IGF's work is establishing dialogue, exchanging points of view. But this is not enough to solve the problems. The real problem is that in the field of the Internet, there is a monopoly that exists. And we need to solve that problem. It's not by talking about principles merely that we can solve this problem.
We can also see this kind of discussion taking place. But it's not enough for developing countries who don't have enough resources and don't have the capacities to participate in this kind of dialogue without further commitments being made, which is why the points of view of developing countries, especially when it comes to Internet governance, their points of view are not sufficiently reflected in our discussions, which is why we don't agree that the IGF should continue its mandate after the five years are up.
So we repeat that the delegation of China does not agree with extending the mission of the IGF beyond the five years. We feel that after the five years are up, we would need to look at the results that have been achieved. And we need, then, to launch into an intergovernmental discussion.
I think that this should be a positive result of IGF's work.
The work of its next phase should be based on the results achieved in the previous years. We need to launch an intergovernmental discussion in order to solve the real problems that exist in this field of Internet governance.
The IGF Watch blog points out that China isn't alone in its frustration with the IGF and with ICANN. The EU's Viviane Reding proposed a new model of Internet governance last week in which ICANN would be reformed and overseen by a new "G12 for Internet Governance." But IGF Watch's Jeremy Malcolm thinks the debate may help to steer things in a more realistic direction:
True, it's just a shame that China had to be the stakeholder to make this bold point, since its motivations are transparently undemocratic - it was, for example, the only stakeholder at yesterday's meeting to openly oppose the inclusion of Internet rights and principles as theme for an IGF main session.
But from whichever source the realisation comes, given that the WSIS dream of a new consensual model of multi-stakeholder engagement in policy development has failed, it may be that we have to bite that bullet and fall back on the ugly alternative of agnonism - the recognition that the engagement of governments and civil society in global politics is inherently dialectical and conflictual, and that they will never truly deliberate as equals.
This might not even be such a bad thing. It need not in fact spell the death of the IGF, but rather its rebirth; as it would free the institution to make a clean break from its stifling Secretariat and the United Nations system generally. It could instead reconstitute itself as an independent private international institution much like ICANN itself, that would seek to participate on an equal footing in whatever institutions hold real power in Internet governance in the future, perhaps including Reding's new G-12 (or IG20, as Wolfgang Kleinwaechter had presaged it).
It's going to be an interesting year for Internet governance, and we are certain to hear a lot more from China. As it so happens, I'll be attending the next ICANN meeting in Sydney as well as the IGF meeting in Egypt as part of my research for my book.