For everyone who ever wondered about what is that I am doing at the moment, here is the first attempt of some very talented students to tell the story. There is more to follow.
With a slight delay, I would like to share video footage of the workshop I organized at the last IGF in Vilnius. This is the same workshop for which I was seeking your input about a month and a half ago.
The full title of the workshop is “Core Internet values and the principles of Internet Governance across generations” and the idea is exactly that – to have a dialogue between Internet pioneers and young Internet activists on the core of what the Internet stands for.
We had a great group of people. On the one hand, there were young people from different parts of the world. On the other hand, there were more senior Internet thinkers and practitioners. Here is the full list of participants (in alphabetical order):
- Bill Graham, Global Strategic Engagement, the Internet Society (ISOC)
- ‘Gbenga Sesan, Paradigm New Nigeria
- Drew Smith, Student at Elon Univeristy and participant in Imagining the Internet project
- Grace Bomu, Young Kenyan lawyer, secretary of the ICT Consumers Association of Kenya, and cultural activist
- Laura DeNardis, Yale Information Society Project
- Marie Casey, Elected female representative at the ITU Youth Forum of future leaders, Geneva, 2009
- Nii Narku Quaynor, Ghana.com
- Rafik Dammak, Tokyo University
- Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google
- Vladimir Radunovic, Diplo Foundation
Ian Peter, who chaired the last year workshop on Internet Governance, was also supposed to take part in the workshop, but unfortunately he was not able to make it to Vilnius.
I hoped to be able to share a report from the workshop here, but other tasks take priority at the moment and I will be posting the report later. I do think we had a very interesting and lively discussion, so I thought at this point I will just share the video footage of the event. If you have a couple of hours to spare, I think you will find this engaging.
As always, your thoughts and comments are most welcome!
I am currently at the fifth IGF in Vilnius and yesterday I presented some data from our study on the online routines of the digital natives at the GigaNet. Here, i would like to share one observation that I find particularly interesting. In the graph below you can see a summary of our coding of how our participants reached website during our observation sessions. It reflects coding of over 650 instance of accessing website in each China and the US.
As we can see, in most cases, our participants searched; this is consistent across both groups and I think was not particularly surprising. Similarly, the use of bookmarks was equally consistent across both groups, which in my view was more surprising (perhaps since I am not a big bookmark user).
The differences, as you can see, were in the use of autocomplete and reliance on links. Interestingly, in the Chinese sample, there were significantly more instances of using reliance on links compared to the use of autocomplete. In the US sample what we see is practically a mirror image of this trend – significantly larger proportion of instances involved the use of autocomplete.
What makes it even more interesting is a glimpse at where do the Chinese participants follow the links from. We are still organizing that data, but my initial observation is that many of those are coming from websites that basically large repositories of links (for example take a look at www.2345.com or www.114la.com).
All this brings up some thoughts about the role of English in the online experience. In my view, one plausable explanation of this data can be the knowledge of English language. I can see how use of the autocomplete function comes more “naturally” to the native speakers, compared to those for whom English is a second language. The large collections of links that were utilized by our Chinese participants, further support this idea – why would you make an effort of typing in an inconvenient language, when you can go to just one website, where all the links you use are?
There are currently more questions than statements suggested by the snippet above – there is still a lot of work to be done on these data. Having said that, I’d love to hear your thought about this little observation. Please share…
You can find the slides from the presentation here.
The next Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is just around the corner and for the first time I am organizing a workshop there. I think the title of the workshop speaks for itself. It is: “Core Internet Values and the Principles of Internet Governance Across Generations.”
The idea is very simple. We are going to have a group of very smart people. Some of them are internet pioneers from different countries, some of them are established researchers, and some are well known practitioners. We will also have a group of young, less known (yet) people, whose activism and professional lives are related to the internet in one way or another. The panel itself is quite large and we are also counting on having a very diverse and engaging audience from the IGF community.
So, the plan is to have a discussion among the panelists and then involve the floor, about core internet values and principles. The question is not only what those values and principles might be, but whether the perception of these values and principles varies across generations and what that may mean for the future of internet-related policies.
This is where I would really appreciate an input from anyone reading these lines. What do you think are the core values and principles of the internet where we can find the widest gaps across generations?
One example may be the notion of privacy. I think since online social networks became popular there is an ongoing debate about how the younger generations’ perceptions of privacy online differ from that of their parents. We all heard Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that the age of privacy is over. But is it so for everyone?
What are the core values and principles of the internet that you still hold dear? Which ones do you think were important in the past, but are no longer important?
Please share your thoughts!
Once a year or so ICANN holds a conference called ICANN Studienkreis. This is another forum where one can get updated with various ongoing internet governance topics. The last meeting took place earlier this week in Barcelona, but unfortunately there was no streaming of the event and I could not find any records or transcripts from it. The only available record is the agenda with links to a number of PDFs of various presentation. These are of course not very informative, but there is still something we can learn from them.
One presentation that caught my attention was by Andrey Kolesnikov from the Russian Coordination Centre for TLD.ru, which he gave in a session on internationlized domain names (PDF). It caught my attention because I got recently interested in the debate surrounding this topic and hoped to learn about how things are going in countries that have already applied for a localized top level domains (other presenters on the panel were from Egypt and China). There is only so much one can learn from just looking at PPT slides, but here is an attempt.
Russia is the only country I know of that has already auctioned localized domain names, even though the approval of the top level domain in Cyrillic is still in the works. As such, Kolesnikov was in a position to shed some light on the actual demand for localized domain names, as opposed to arguments about their great potential. And if I read his slides correctly, I think he did. Here is what he has to show:
The early registration process, or the “sunrise” period, is still going on, but these numbers are interesting. There are currently over 369K domain names registered in Russia and according to Coordination Centre for TLD.ru, there are over 2.6 million domains registered under the .ru top level domain (RU). In other words. we can see that the trademark holders and Russian domainers are either careful with grabbing this opportunity or skeptical of the entire enterprise. Of course this is a very early stage in the process, but if it is indicative of a trend, than at least in the case of Russia, the skeptics might have a point. Of course the situation may be different in other parts of the world and in other cultures, but Russian industry does not seem to be too excited.
Am I overanalyzing this? Am I taking these number out of context? What do you think?
I wonder what do people think about the potential repercussions of the introduction of IDNs, particularly in terms of fragmentation of the Internet. In this post I provide some background about the languages on the web, some of my thoughts, and finally questions for which I would love to hear your thoughts.
After many years of debates, International Domain Names (IDNs) have finally become more tangible with the announcement of the Fast Track by ICANN earlier this year. Right now it is open only to states and territories recognized in the ISO 3166-1 regulation. A number of countries have already applied for registering their Internet country suffixes in their local languages (IDN ccTLDs). For example, Egypt announced that they are going to register “.مصر”, which stands for Egypt in Arabic, and Russia started the registration process for “.рф,” which stands for Russian Federation.
Overall, introduction of the IDNs has been met with a lot of enthusiasm. In the last ICANN meeting in Seol and at the last IGF this was celebrated as the final internationalization of the Internet. The minister of communication of Egypt was quoted saying that the “Internet now speaks Arabic” and the European Union has also declared that they are going to allow registration of .eu in all 23 official languages of the Union. People are celebrating the diversity.
At the same time, as expected, not everybody is excited about this development. It is widely held that the primary opposition to IDNs has been voiced by the trademarks holders. After sort of figuring out how to protect their trademarks in the current, Roman script dominated, cyberspace (such as the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy), they are not particularly psyched about the need to do it again in dozens of other languages and potentially under dozens of other regulatory regimes.
However, not only the trademarks holders are not excited about the new IDNs. There are also those, who voice concerns about fragmentation of the Internet as a result of adoption of domain names that would be accessible only to speakers of a particular language. Dwayne Bailey, Research Director of the African Network for Localisation, spoke at the IGF about the danger of monolingual silos or as he put it: “A multilingual world of mono-lingualism.” Karine Barzliai Nahon wrote a post on this topic, addressing particularly the situation in Israel, but alluding to similar concerns. I personally had thoughts along the same lines when I first heard about the idea of IDNs and we can find similar arguments even at the very beginning of the debate about IDNs (for example here).
From where I stand as a user of the Internet (and I think most of the people who read those lines share this position), the Internet emerges as this enormous modern (knowledge and information) Tower of Babel. There is so much information out there and it all is accessible to me at my laptop – all I need to do is to type a query in the search engine or enter a URL. This is possible primarily because I feel at ease with both the technology and the English language.
Even though English is not the only language online, we can still access most of the content in English. As some of the stats suggest, in 2008 only 31% of the online content was in English and that percentage was shrinking. Chinese accounted for 20% and Spanish for 7%. Between 2000 and 2008, the amount of content in Arabic grew 2064%, in Chinese 755%, and in Portuguese 668%. However, even if the content itself is in a language that I do not understand, there are automatic translators that are good enough to allow me understanding, and maybe even engaging with, materials in languages other than those that I know. All I need is to enter a URL of a website into an automatic translator, and here it is at my fingertips. Isn’t it wonderful?
The “danger” of IDNs thus is fragmentation of content and as a result fragmentation of the Internet itself. If I am unable to type in a URL of a website I won’t be able to access it, even before I reach the point where I need a translation. The result could be that different cultural groups will isolate themselves by using the language barrier and we might lose the wealth of information that is out there. This would be an equivalent of what happened to the Biblical Tower of Babel when all the different languages were introduced – the tower fell. Our modern (knowledge and information) Tower of Babel might fall as well.
These were some of my initial thoughts and these are the concerns voiced by others as well. However, the more I think about it the less categorical picture emerges. Here are some of my more recent thoughts:
- To start with, it is not clear how much attention people pay to the URLs and there is quite a lot of research out there showing that people don’t use URLs for web navigation that much. I think this is a major point in our thinking about the “threat” and “benefits” of IDNs. I am not at all convinced that URLs matter.
- Second, I am not sure how much people in fact consume content that is not in languages that they know. I mean, it may well be that the content online is already segregated and having internationalized URLs will not change much. I have yet met a native English speaker who was a regular reader of websites in Russian or Chinese (I see a lot of the opposite, but not that).
- Third, I think it is reasonable to assume that just as we have automatic translators that allow browsing entire websites in languages other than those that we know, there will be a technological solution that will make the URLs just as transparent.
- Same goes for keyboards. If we will insist on typing the URLs, virtual or projection keyboards can allow having an unlimited number of scripts on a single keyboard. In fact, in this kind of technical solutions, I do believe in letting the markets speak and if there is enough demand for IDNs and enough demand for bypassing the IDNs, the technical solutions will appear.
- Also, as the rhetoric of IDNs suggests, they are aimed not at people who are already online and are comfortable with English, but at those who for various reasons, are not online yet and for whom English is a barrier. It is easy for us to talk about potential loss of our access to the (dare I say underutilized) wealth of information from a position of relative power. It is quite different for those who do not have any access at all.
- Finally, it may be natural that we do not understand all the content that is out there. After all this is how our society became as diverse as it is. Moreover the effort we need to put into learning and understanding another culture makes the experience even more rewarding. So, maybe the IDNs are just a natural development?
My bottom line is that while I do share some concerns regarding the IDNs’ potential contribution to the fragmentation of the Internet, I am not at all convinced that this is what will necessarily happen. Of course, one can think of scenarios where some governments force registration of local domains in a particular language, but even in that case, I am not sure it will work. Similarly, I am not 100% sure that English is the main barrier to access and effective use of the Web. I think there are other barriers such as lack of physical infrastructure or lack of technical literacy. But perhaps more than ever before I think this is a case where we should let the users of the Internet make up their minds whether they want to use internationalized domain names or not. The history suggests that the currently connected won’t do it, but perhaps the 6 billions of those who are not connected will.
These are some of my thoughts on the subject. What do you think? Will IDNs cause further fragmentation of the Internet? Or will they increase the diversity of the content online and make the Web more accessible?
Evgeny Morozov started an interesting conversation on the webpages of the Prospect Magazine about the role of “new” media in civic activism under repressive regimes. He is rather skeptical about the equation “internet=democracy” and provides a plethora of examples where relying on “new” media can stagnate and/or backfire at attempts of civil activism or apprising.
I find particularly compelling his longitudinal view of things as opposed to focusing on a momentary instance (i.e. Twitter/Facebook/OtherTrendyWebsite Revolution). For example, he refers to the protests in Belarus, which followed their presidential election in 2006 – there were flash mob protests organized using LiveJournal, which attracted a lot of attention from the Western media. However, looking back, the results of those protests and the online activism are minimal to non-existent.
However, Evgeny does not stop there and suggests that the oppressive regimes are also learning to use the web. Not only they use the web to to get to the activists (for example see how the Iranian government is using the web to identify the particularly active individuals in the post-election protests in the country), but they are also learning to use the “new” media to fight back and even to predict future unrest.
Evgeny explicitly mentions Clay Shirky as “the man most responsible for the intellectual confusion over the political role of the internet.” Shiry responds, acknowledging some of Morozov’s criticism, but stating that regardless of that the “new” media should not be disregarded. Unfortunately, in his argument, Shirky he seems to repeat some of the old claims focused on what might happen based on very limited evidence. For example he writes: “It is impossible to know how the next few months in Iran will unfold, but the use of social media has already passed several tests: it has enabled citizens to coordinate with one another better than previously, to broadcast events like Basij violence or the killing of Neda Aga Soltan to the rest of the world, and, by forcing the regime to shut down communications apparatus, the protesters have infected Iran with a kind of technological auto-immune disease.” However I don’t think he provides much evidential support for those predication, at least at this point. Having said that, I admit that I don’t know much about the idea of “information cascades” and cannot address their debate on that ground (others seem to know much more about that).
I think one of the points Evgeny is making in this article (as well in some of his other commentary), even if he is not stating this explicitly, is about the dichotomy between the online and physical spaces. The narrative of digital activism as a catalyst of “real” political change is heavily based in the assumption that the “digital” realm is substantively different from the “real” and it is possible to change the later through affecting the former. First, the old-fashioned political apparatus is not as savvy in comprehending this “digital” realm, which supposedly allows the activists new forms of engagement, communication, and mobilization. Second, whatever emerges in the “digital” world has “real” impact on the “real” world (but rarely the other way around). The result of this last assumption is a hype about Facebook uprisings and Twitter revolutions.
Evgeny’s skepticism, and to a degree Caly’s reply, highlight that the distinction between the “digital” and the “real” does not hold water as the “digital” is inherently rooted the “real.” Adoption and diffusion of information technology does not happen in vacuum, but under physical and social constraints that constitute the “realities” on the ground. The technology is not infused into existing societies and immediately starts processes of change, but it is appropriated, reinvented, and reinterpreted subject to the norms, customs, legal, political, and economic systems of the place and more. That is not to say that adoption of the technology does not have an impact, but if we are to wear an activist hat and look for efficient ways of utilizing technology for civil activism, particularly under oppressive regimes, we should be blinded by the convenience of the artificial separation between the “digital” and “real.”
For me, the takeaway from this debate is that thinking about the role of political uses of “new” media it is important to keep the big picture in mind. While those can be useful tools for enhancing the flow of information and potentially empower grassroots activism, the “digital” realm in itself does produce “real” change. Revolutions, dissent, and political change are very “real” and are conducted through very tangible means. Thus, while it is important to continue the discussion and the study of the political role of “new” media, the digital tools cannot be viewed as detached from the realities on the ground.
These are my thoughts. What are yours?
I wanted to post reflections on various readings here before, but never got to it. This is my first attempt. I just finished reading “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who is directing the I+I Centre where I am spending this semester. The book tackles the phenomenon of digital remembering, its potential social repercussions, and ways to address those. On the publisher’s website it says that the book:
“…looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well… In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget–the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that’s facilitating the end of forgetting–digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software–and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it’s outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won’t let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can’t help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution–expiration dates on information–that may.”
However, I think the book talks more about issues of information control and management, where forgetting is an important mechanism that allows the users to exercise their agency in an environment, which is becoming more and more information-intensive. The first half of the book is dedicated to setting the stage. It is a rather detailed and rich account of the history of the contemporary information environment particularly print, evolution of the memory devices and information storage, and development of information governance institutions (defined in broader terms) such as copyright. While I was aware of some of the stories, many of them were rather new to me. For example, did you know that the subject index, as an alphabetical list of topics covered in a book, was introduced in thirteenth century, but the idea of adding page numbers to the index to ease the actual navigation was added only in the sixteenth century? Quite interesting.
Telling this history Mayer-Schönberger draws a picture of ever growing body of information about us, as individual members of society, and the way we may interact with it, even if in an indirect way. One of his favorite examples is the story of Stacy Snyder who was denied her teaching certificate because of a picture she had posted on MySpace of her dressed as a drunken pirate. The gist of the argument, if I read it correctly, is that while it becomes easier and cheaper to collect and store information about us and our behavior, we, as individuals, are losing more and more control over that information (once you or somebody else posts your picture online, you no longer have control over where it may appear, who may see it, and in what context). He labels it in terms of remembering and forgetting – if in the past it was difficult and costly to remember and easy and cheap to forget, this balance has reversed.
These days it is so easy and cheap to remember that we start losing our ability to forget. The repercussions of this development are that the accessible, durable, and comprehensive digital record of our past directly impacts the way we conduct and make decisions in the present. For example, I know that once this post will be published, it will become a permanent record of my take on “Delete”. Knowing that, I should probably be very careful with what I say about it, because it may impact my future interaction not just with Viktor (with whom I am currently working), but also with other potential readers of this post. I may choose to self censor myself, to present a biased view, or abstain from publishing it altogether. The point is that my behavior today is guided by the uncertainty about the future uses of this information – on the one hand I know it is there to stay, probably attached to my name, but on the other hand, I have no idea who, when, and under what circumstances will use and interpret this post.
To better understand this idea, I think it is helpful to focus on some aspects of socio-psychological functioning of information, which Mayer-Schönberger discusses in length in the book. One of those aspects is interpretation. The bits and bytes in themselves do not mean much, unless we interpret them (similar to the idea of data in knowledge management). It is through interpretation that the information gains meaning and thus also social functions. This leads to another important aspect, which is context. In different contexts we will interpret the same information differently and this is one of the dangers of digitized memory – information is recorded in a certain time and in a given context, but when it gets retrieved at a different time and in a different context, it will likely have different meaning. Thus we are losing control over the interpretation and meaning of the digital information about us and our behavior. When we, as individuals, are losing control over the information, we are becoming powerless compared to other actors (like the state and the corporate world) who have the capacity to collect, store, and retrieve information about us, thus making them even more powerful (they know more about us than we know about them and they control the interpretation process of information about us). Another aspect of this is the negation of time, which threats our ability to make rational decision in the present. Instead of focusing on the big picture, we are focusing on managing the mundane details of our lives, because those are recorded and stored and will have impact on us in the future.
The shift of control over information and negation of time are at the heart of Mayer-Schönberger’s concern with digital remembering. The rest the book is dedicated to analysis of potential responses to this concern and finally a proposal of an alternative solution. The book lists six different potential responses, each addresses either the power or the time aspect of digital remembering on one of the three levels: individual, law, and technology. The six solutions are digital abstinence, information privacy rights, digital privacy rights (sort of a DRM for personal information), cognitive adjustment, information ecology, and perfect contextualization. Each one of the approaches has its merits, but each one also has its drawbacks either at the conceptual or practical levels.
Mayer-Schönberger suggests expiration date for information as his solution to the negative effects of digital remembering. On the face of it, this is a rather straight forward idea – we need a piece of meta-data attached to each bit of information, which will determine how long this bit of information should be retained. Of course, his suggestion is much more nuanced and he goes into various scenarios of different ways in which information can be forgotten or partially forgotten, but I hope my one-line explanation carries over the gist of the argument. Mayer-Schönberger acknowledges in his book that expiration date addresses the time-related aspect of digital remembering, but it does little at the “power” front. In fact, the “power” is supposedly influenced indirectly, as by allowing automatic deletion of information the powerful side in the interaction is giving up some of its powers (if my power stems from having information about you and being able to mine it for my purposes, giving up the control over when this information is deleted, is equivalent to giving up part of my power).
I think that the main weakness of the expiration date argument lies not in the fact that it focuses primarily on the “time” aspect of the issue, but in the fact that it puts great hopes into the agency of the user. The idea of expiration dates gives user the power to decide for each and every piece of information how long they want to retain it. However, I am still slightly skeptical whether the user will use that power, because it comes with a cost. This idea assumes that (1) people want to make a decision about each bit of information they process and (2) they are capable of estimating the usable time span of each and every bit. I am not sure that people are that zealous about managing their information and are that thoughtful about the future prospects of its use. Just imagine if you had to decide for each one of the 300 pictures from your last trip, how long you want to retain it… wouldn’t it be easier just to keep them all? … just in case?
However, I think the main task of “Delete” is not offering a practical solution (that may be better done through establishing a startup :), but undertaking a rather ambitious conceptual and educational task – bringing the idea of “finitness of information” (p.171) into the public consciousness. There may be numerous socio-technical solution to the negative effects of digital remembering, but you need a well stated argument to start thinking in that direction. I think this is what “Delete” is trying to achieve.
Here is also Viktor’s talk about the book at Berkman, just about a month and a half ago (caution: it is rather long – over an hour):
I have recently encountered some news articles discussing Israel and technology, so I thought I’d share a couple of observations: one about where Israelis are spending their time online and another one about the Israeli high-tech industry and its main challenge.
As to the first observations, it turns out that the five most popular websites in Israel are: Google (92.3%), Walla! (67.2%), Facebook (61.2%), Ynet (58.4%), and YouTube (54.9%). This is interesting and slightly surprising at the same time. It is interesting because Facebook has outperformed Ynet and the Israeli equivalents of YouTube are nowhere near the top runners. It is also interesting because US brands are occupying three out of top 5 places. Of course in all of them, the users can do practically everything in Hebrew, but still, the local attempts to offer search, social networking, and online video, are not doing very well.
These statistics are also surprising, because there is an image of Israelis as being obsessed with news, but it seems like the social interactions are currently more interesting to them compared to the biometric database law and such. Perhaps this is a sign of relative calm in the region. Also, to me, one of the surprising aspects of the numbers above was that Walla! outperformed Ynet in popularity, because I was under the impression that Ynet is far more popular. Perhaps that can be explained by the fact that Walla! offers not only news, but also email, shopping, and more (the exclamation mark in the name is there for a reason – they are taking the Yahoo! approach). This may also be an explanation to why Ynet has recently offered its registered users a free email with unlimited capacity.
Asked explicitly about their browsing habits at work, the respondents to the survey listed the same five websites at the top, but in a slightly different order: Google (87.8%), Ynet (52.8%), Walla! (47.9%), Facebook (31.2%), and YouTube (25.3%). It looks like the working people value news more than socializing and entertainment, but since I don’t have the actual survey in front of me, it hard to tell much.
As to the second observation, there is a new book out there, trying to analyze the success of the Israeli high-tech. From its description the book sounds a bit too poetic (almost like a marketing brochure), but it cites some interesting numbers and voices an important warning. For example, there are around 3,850 start-up companies in Israel today and in 2008 the volume of venture capital investments in Israel was 2.5 higher compared to that in the US. If you compare the per capita venture capital investment, the volumes in Israel are 30 times higher compared to Europe, 80 times higher compared to India, and 300 times higher compared to China (well, I guess this is one good thing about being a small country). There are 63 Israeli companies traded on NASDAQ, which is the larger group of foreign companies from a single country on that exchange (the second largest group is Canada with 48 companies). Finally, it turns out that Israel has one of the highest rates of investment in civil R&D in the world. According to the article the country invests 4.5% (of its GDP I assume, because the article does not clarify that) in civil R&D, compared to 3.2% in Japan (the second largest) and 2.7% in the US (the third largest).
The book discusses a number of factors that contributed to the entrepreneurial culture and innovation in Israel (such as the immigration and combination of the army service and good higher education) and highlights one factor that endangers it all. The authors, Dan Senor and Saul Singer, suggest that the state of the K-12 education in Israel is degrading and something needs to be done if Israel wants to maintain its innovative-entrepreneurial advantage – and I tend to agree. I have not read the actual book, so I am not sure what exactly they are proposing, but I think it is good that this problem is getting attention in something that will probably become a popular read in the industry.
Originally, I planned to post about this before the actual date, but as it often happens, priorities got in the way and here I am now, reflecting on things post factum. So, what happened on October 1, 2009 to deserve a blog post?
September 30th was the expiration date of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)/Joint Project Agreement (JPA) between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce. This special arrangement between the US Government and the pivotal organization in the Internet Governance came under a lot of criticism over the years and has generated calls for greater transparency, oversight, and internationalization of ICANN, with an overarching theme of increasing participation of various stakeholders being those governments or the civil society.
Initially, the MOU was supposed to last for three years, but it ended up being used for eleven. Nominally, under the MOU, the only body that could review ICANN’s activity was the US Government. At least in theory, this oversight gave the US Government direct control over ICANN, despite the rhetoric of bottom-up decision making and multistakeholderism. In practice, I am not sure how much direct control was actually exercised; it seems that most influence came through soft power and ICANN made numerous efforts to increase transparency and international participation in its activities.
The big change offered by the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC), which was signed yesterday, is that it replaces the earlier agreement and exposes ICANN to public oversight. As Rod Beckstrom, the CEO and the President of ICANN, wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian: “We are entering a new era of coordination, not control – where the internet is governed by you, the users.” Well, at least nominally. According to the AOC, the different aspects of ICANN’s activities will have to be reviewed, at least every three years, by a various committees where the US Government will have only one sit, together with other representatives of the ICANN community.
Overall, the announcement of the AOC and the first round of responses was surrounded by rhetoric of independence and further internationalization of ICANN. BBC News wrote that “US relaxes grip on the internet,” Guardian titled their item: “US relinquishes control of the internet,” and “Internet News” announced that “U.S. Cedes ICANN Control to the World” (other outlets had similar titles). On the ICANN’s website, there is an entire collection of responses from industry leaders and politicians from all over the world, who solute the AOC. Some of the US newspapers were a bit more critical. The PC World published an article titled: “U.S. Loosens Grip On ICANN, Domain Chaos To Follow?” where they discuss ICANN’s intentions to introduce new top level domains and domains in non-Latin characters. However, the overwhelming majority of responses are applauding the supposed independence.
More specifically, the independence stems from the fact that the review of ICANN’s activity will be no longer conducted by the DOC, but by a committee of supposedly independent experts and will be also put out online for public comments. That is again, nominally. In fact, there are reasons to question the independent character of this committee. As Ian Douglas of the Telegraph notes, members of these committees will still come from the ICANN circles, thus implying little change in the character of the oversight. Milton Muller adds to it by highlighting that people who are going to be reviewed by the committee, i.e. the ICANN management, are those who are responsible for nomination of committee members. According to AOC, the CEO of ICANN and the Chair of the Government Advisory Group (GAC) are those who appoint the review committee members.
The other aspect highlighted in the AOC and in the responses to it is the private sector leadership. Even though there is literature suggesting otherwise, the commonly held perception, especially in the diplomatic circles, was that the US Government is leading ICANN. In practice, again, there were much more shades of gray and the industry played an important role in steering ICANN in particular directions (Milton refers to this as well in his review of AOC). In the current arrangement, the governments are getting a heavier say in the process. Even if they are not formally in a decision-making position, they are now in a position where they directly involved in setting the parameters of the discourse and who is getting the stage.
Personally, I still find it difficult to see beyond the rhetoric of independence and internationalization at the moment. While this is presented as an important step, it remains to be seen how significant the actual change is going to be, particularly in terms of public participation in ICANN’s activity. One of the points that struck me in the interview Rod Beckstrom gave to the NPR, was him equating public participation to the participation of the governments. Indeed, this is the view held by many States that were eager to have a more significant say on issues of Internet Governance; the rhetoric there is that governments are representatives of their people and they know the best how to take care of their people’s interests. While this may be acceptable in some cases and in some cultures, it is definitely not a homogeneous take. I doubt that many people affiliated with the civil society or civil rights activists, particularly in places that do not excel on that front, will agree with that equation.
I think the affirmation, even though it represents a somewhat expected compromise, is a positive step and the rhetoric surrounding it is encouraging. However we still have to wait and see if the actions will align with the rhetoric and whether October 1, 2009 will be remembered as a pivotal date in the history of Internet Governance. Moreover, this step makes the upcoming Internet Governance Forum particularly interesting and I wonder what kind of effect this announcement will have on its agenda. I guess we will see the first signs tomorrow at IGF-USA that will take place in Washington DC.