European Commission declares itself an “Honest broker in future global negotiations on Internet Governance”

For more than a decade there has been active resistance in some quarters to the continuing custody by the U.S. of the root domain registries of the Internet. Those directories (which control the routing of Internet traffic into and out of nations) are administered by ICANN, which in turn exists under the authority of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Today, Neelie Kroes, the strong-willed European Commission Vice-President in charge of the E.C.’s Digital Agenda, has put the question of “Internet Governance” (read: control of these registries) back into the news. Specifically, Kroes announced in a press release that the Commission will pursue a “role as honest broker in future global negotiations on Internet Governance.”

While the press refers to “reduced trust” in the Internet as a result of the disclosure of NSA surveillance activities, today’s announcement is in fact a continuation of an effort on the part of the EU nations (among others) that has simmered, and occasionally boiled over, for many years. It first reached a crescendo in 2005 in connection with the convening of a global, UN sponsored “World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).” Part of the outcome of that meeting was the creation of a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), and in September of 2005, the EU (and UK) broke ranks with the U.S., coming out in support of a new global body to control what had by then come to be referred to as “Internet Governance.”

With the creation of the powerless WGIG, however, the energy behind the issue partially abated. Indeed, pressure on the U.S. was partially deflected most recently to the ITU, which has been engaging in its own perennial effort to take control of aspects of the Internet. Due to fears that the ITU might be unduly influenced by less than ideal stewards of a free Internet (like China), U.S. control for the time being seemed like the lesser of two evils if these were the only two choices available.

Now, however, disclosures of the NSA’s international surveillance activities have put the U.S. back on the defensive. Concerns over the U.S.’s continuing role were highlighted in the release in October of last year of the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation by the ten organizations responsible for responsible for global coordination of the Internet technical infrastructure, including the IETF, W3C and (surprisingly) ICANN itself. In that statement, the signatories “called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.” (IANA – the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority – is part of ICANN, and is responsible for the global coordination of the DNS Root, IP addressing, and other Internet protocol resources.)

Now the EC, it seems, has decided to declare itself the middle man in pursuing this goal, referring to the next two years as being “critical in redrawing the global map of Internet governance,” and stating that “Europe must play a strong role in defining what the net of the future looks like.” The press release goes on to propose “concrete actions,” including “[e]stablishment of a clear timeline for the globalisation of ICANN and the ‘IANA functions’” The press release goes on to make a variety of other proposals, most of which are high level than specific (e.g., “a strengthening of the global Internet Governance Forum” and “an ongoing commitment to improve the transparency, accountability and inclusiveness of the multi-stakeholder processes and those who participate in these processes).”

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Significantly, the press release also allocates a paragraph to making it clear that the EC’s announcement should not be read as a decision to roll out the red carpet to the ITU, quoting Vice-President Kroes as follows:

Some are calling for the International Telecommunications Union to take control of key Internet functions. I agree that governments have a crucial role to play, but top-down approaches are not the right answer. We must strengthen the multi-stakeholder model to preserve the Internet as a fast engine for innovation.

Instead, it states that, “The Commission firmly supports a real multi-stakeholder governance model for the Internet based on the full involvement of all relevant actors and organisations.”

Regarding what will happen next, the press release declares that:

Today’s Communication is a foundation for a common European approach in global negotiations, such as the Netmundial meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil (April 2014), the Internet Governance Forum (end-August) and the High Level ICANN meeting. This approach will be further developed with the European Parliament and the Council.

Whether the EC’s self-asserted role as an “honest broker” will be welcomed by other critics of the current U.S. role – and whether the EC in fact will be viewed by other stakeholders as being neutral and disinterested  – will remain to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether this latest statement by the E.C. will prove to be more consequential than its several, previous calls to globalize Internet governance.  What can be assured, however, is that the disclosures by Edward Snowden will make it more difficult than in the past for the U.S. to claim that the keys to the Internet are better off in American hands than in those of an independent global authority.

Finally, there is this question: will the U.S. be better off or worse as a result of this announcement? That will depend on whether the E.C.’s statement has been motivated purely by self-interest, or whether it is at least in part the result of back-channel discussions between the U.S. and the E.C. Given the widespread ire that the NSA disclosures aroused in Europe and the sparring regarding technology-related issues that has been a feature of the current TTIP negotiations, the former would seem to be a far more likely conclusion than the latter.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the U.S. Department makes a statement in response to the E.C.’s announcement, and what, if anything, can be read between its lines.
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Comments (6)

  1.  I guess its all in one’s perspective – much as I appreciate most of Nellie Kroes moves, I still can’t but feel that the EC as a whole are not democratically elected or representative.

    PS. Did you intend to repeat the first paragraph of this article for emphasis?

  2. I’m intrigued by your comment on the nature of Kroes’ authority.  Do you think that the system whereby representatives to the EU are elected is fundamentally undemocratic?


    PS:  No, I didn’t mean to repeat it (how embarassing…)


      – Andy

    •  First a few of my terminology definitions: Democracy > rule/power of the people, whereby all eligible citizens participate equally in the proposal, development and creation of laws. Representative Democracy > that in which political power is excercised by elected representatives.

      My problem with the current structure of the government of the EU, is that basically the only body that proposes legislation is the Commission, whilst development and creation of laws (and possibly policies) fall to the ambit of the two Councils rather than the ‘democratically elected’ Parliament.
      Furthermore, membership of the Commission, is not a democratic process.  Just for instance, Baroness Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is a Vice-President of the European Commission – was made a life peer by Gordon Brown in 1999 and has never been ‘democratically elected’ to any position.
      Likewise, we, as citizens, do not elect (or for that matter, have any input into the policies championed, at any given moment in time, by the ministers, or their departmental representatives) the subject-matter changing membership of the Council of Ministers.  For instance, what ‘valid’ input can a Fisheries minister from a land-locked country have?
      Hence, my inference that EU Representatives may not be democratically elected in the sense of a Representative Democracy. If a person is not democratically elected it becomes impossible for citizens to remove said person from office, or to hold that person responsible for their actions or lack thereof. Irresponsible?

      • Thanks for that overview, Minrich, which makes me realize that I’m less knowledgeable about how the EU government is constituted than I thought I was (embarrassed twice in just one comment thread!)

        Is there a more or less understandable rationale behind this separation of so much power from the elected Parliament, or is it the result of the fact that the EU governance structure resulted from an evolutionary and accretive process from a far more modest starting point (or perhaps some other reason?)

      •  I don’t mean to be embarrassing! Short answer to your compound question: Maybe, or Yes, (or Yes).

        Long answer:
        First, I think you have to read up on the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) q.v. Wikipedia, although how understandable the evolution from the 50’s to today’s EC structure depends on how tight your bureaucratic hat is.  I’m not sure that I consider that the rationale is entirely rational. Question for you: would the ECSC fit within your definition of Consortium, and, if so, how does it differ from a cartel?
        Second, originally consisting of 6 countries, France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux Trio – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg the ECSC expanded much as the French led High Authority intended (if you believe the whole EU project is directed towards a federation of national States). The growth and/or evolution of the power of the Commission, and the Councils has, to my mind, outstripped the powers vested in the ‘Common Assembly’ as the forerunner of today’s European Parliament.
        Third part, [or perhaps some other reason?] – I feel, although I have no tangible proof or evidence, that there is an enduring undercurrent in all the Executive, and their adminitrative apparatuses, Officials that the original ‘founding fathers’ of the EU concept of the belief that they were the only entity entitled to claim that their Community was and is the only way to Peace in Europe. In their prosecution of this objective they have had to override the Sovereignty of the member states that ‘elected’ to join, and sign onto the various treaties over the years. Much like their original inclusion of the Common Assembly to gain the apparent validity of their project to be viewed as ‘democratic’ by claiming that ‘elected parliamentarians’ from the member countries somehow respects the will of the citizens of the member countries.
        In conclusion, I would add that I never claimed to understand politicians or their policies or their proclavity for failing to live up to the promises of their party manifestos, especially when they know, or should have known, that their hands were tied (in the case of EU member states) by a higher authority. For example, in the UK we have a housing shortage, and a mass immigration from less economically sound EU countries, from those seeking to earn a decent living, and this has led to increasing demand for National Health Services, and schooling and translators therein for non-English speakers – However our politicians are unwilling to address this since it runs contrary to the terms of some Treaty or Directive or some such. YMMV, hope this helps.  

      • Thanks again. Needless to say, I asked a very complicated question that could only be answered by a complicated response.

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