Sacrificing ICANN Not Enough for the US to Restore Its Internet Ethics

Editor in chief, The Global Journal on huffingtonpost.com

We were only a few among media to realize, back in 2012, how arrogant and powerful was the US over its dominance of the Internet, and not just its control over the root servers and the domain name management. Policy making was at stake! Since December 2012, we know it as the US 120-member delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) left the room where over 190 nation states were convene to discuss terms of progress over agreement in international telecommunication connectivity.

Its major reason was: “We do not want to see the word ‘Internet’ appearing in an updated telecommunication intergovernmental treaty. If the US accepts this, freedom of expression over Internet will be at stake.” Everyone remembers how a large UN bashing campaign was orchestrated hand in hand by US officials (State Department, Department of Trade, Congress….) and the US Internet robber barons of our time, under the leadership of Google and the support of the subsidized heroic ‘Internet Freedom Fighters’, a naming closer to a talibanesque approach than of a human rights defender’s view.

Today, after Snowden brought evidence to the world, citizens have learnt their lesson: we are all terrorist, not to forget the German Chancellor, the Brazilian President, you and me as well. Who can now trust the US on respecting simple rules over neutrality, privacy, and honesty? Is this part of the 9/11 legacy and the Bush administration ethics? Indeed, had all nation states signed an international telecommunication treaty, the US Democracy would have either ruined its own diplomatic signature or stopped its global spying.

So far no international treaty is protecting global citizens from such abuse, maybe a reason to understand why Edward Snowden decided to spoke truth to power. The citizens of the United States have had a few or no reaction, hesitating between a “I have nothing to hide” and a “I don’t care if they look into my data; anyway I like to exhibit myself in social networks.” Maybe they underestimate the price to pay for their authorities’ choice and conduct.

The reality to be considered has an obvious economic origin and bias, on behalf on which the US is using its ‘digital sovereignty’ over foreign players. This ‘sovereignty’ is expected to help grab precious points of future growth and tens of thousands of jobs over the next decades. Already the mighty power of the Internet is putting the industry big players in a state of permanent stress as they battle to hide their profits worldwide starting with the UK, France, Germany, and all relevant markets. The gold Internet pipeline is bringing indecent power to companies like Google, Verizon, Apple… showing a poor CSR ranking, thanks to their ability to avoid paying due tax around the world. Public US authorities have also their own trade or debt challenges ahead.

All of them whether private or public, bet that Internet will bring what they need most: profit and tax. If the US has organized its own market under the patronage of a few monopolies so precisely described by Susan Crawford in her Captive Audience book, many of the international telecom competitors are very unpleased with the same arrogant dominancy outside the US. Add global spying and abuse of power and you have the perfect Molotov cocktail for an international uproar.

This is not to mention the gift made to all dictators around the world now celebrating the last US digital tread, a global affront, a present that nourishes the villainies the US soldiers are supposedly fighting at a heavy cost around the world. Democracy is the ‘blond’ in dictators’ favorite jokes. All of this comes with a heavy price to all democrats. Any principle that a country pushes to the no-value zone is a very expensive asset to conquer back. Indeed, Internet is now part of our common geography and politics, and a mirror to any ethical failure.

Even though I am not a fervent Marxist, I would define Internet governance more as the superstructure where, beyond national policies, are established internationally, public policy, connectivity agreements, competition fairness, and digital ethics (first pack goes first…), by opposition to the base where corporations and technicians enjoy setting things by force of common technological and commercial sense. Both of them are not so concerned about public good. Their game is to enjoy the most effective code to maximize profits.

The fact is that in order to be left alone ‘ruling’ the code, and the digital space revenue, they are keen to explain that Internet is a pure decentralized world that hates nothing more than to be governed. Jungle and Far-West are always more fun for the ones with the guns. “How to govern such a decentralized wildness?” ask the defenders of the status quo. In this world of ‘Digital Freedom Fighters’ of all kind, the ‘enemy’ is governance and regulation. “Regulation kills innovation.” According to these bright minds – some of them paid by the Internet robber barons to protect and enlarge their baronies – Internet could not be governed except by the successful corporations.

Today, foreign countries realize that the US needs to be grounded. The big lie about the ungovernable digital space has come to an end, as national laws prevail and are about to conflict each other, as more investment is required for higher speed and connectivity, as digital inequalities between regions and continents are stretching – Google’s pocket money put into balloons won’t fill the Internet holes in Africa, when the fortune it is putting in fiber will reinforce Google’s power over the US market, or emerging countries where Google, Facebook and other grab public digital space for little efforts. As any other common good, Internet public regulation is needed all over the world. International law is not the enemy. Vested interests are the enemy of the Netizens. This is getting clearer to many minds, including the ones who de facto control the digital world and its industry.

The White House and the US Internet Barons have now two major issues: how to calm down their very upset partners and/or competitors, and how to avoid a major digital spring that would ruin the current status-quo over their domination within the Internet governance – supposedly for our own good.

A first idea came regarding the economic issue and it went quite un-noticed after the last September G-20 meeting in Saint Petersburg. Published as the Tax Annex to the Saint Petersburg G20 Leaders Declaration, this document claims that:

“International tax rules, which date back to the 1920’s, have not kept pace with the changing business environment, including the growing importance of intangibles and the digital economy. (…)… Issues to be examined include, but are not limited to, the ability of a company to have a significant digital presence in the economy of another country without being liable to taxation due to the lack of nexus under current international rules, the attribution of value created from the generation of marketable location-relevant data through the use of digital products and services, the characterization of income derived from new business models, the application of related source rules, and how to ensure the effective collection of VAT/GST with respect to the cross-border supply of digital goods and services.”

Or to put it simply, when a Turkish or Mexican netizen links to a Google ad, then the data related to that ad revenue will be taxed by the national fiscal authorities. Same idea would therefore applied in all G20 countries, as all of them signed for this to be implemented, including the US. This is quite a change, and indeed, France has been pushing hard on this idea, following the report published in January 2013 by Pierre Colin and Nicolas Collin for both the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances and the Ministère du redressement productif headed by the vocal Arnaud Montebourg. Weeks ago, French digital economy minister, Fleur Pellerin argued in an interview given to the FT that:

“The time has come to be more proactive on the European level, not to regulate the Internet but to regulate some platforms that have gained dominant positions and now use those dominant positions to make it impossible for smaller actors to develop and to challenge their positions. That’s a problem.”

Ms Pellerin has been pushing the issue on the European agenda since then, with some success and aims at linking the tax base to the place where the profits are made, and proposing a revised EU value added tax by spring 2014. For the White House and the State department, it sounds like a minor blow, as the project targets mainly US corporations, and wealthy ones. Some new tax revenues might soften political wills around the digital planet. Dries Lesage, professor of globalization and global governance, at Ghent Institute for International Studies, at Ghent University brings a clear understanding of what is at stake in a paper published in the Saint Petersburg G20 preparatory documentation:

“The transnational observation should give way to an entirely new regime, one that is based on unitary taxation. This means that multinationals’ global profits are allocated and taxed per country, according to a formula that looks into real economic activity. The current regime, in contrast, allows multinational groups to engage in artificial cross-border transactions among their own subsidiaries, in order to shift profits to low-tax jurisdictions and tax havens.”

Regarding the Internet governance itself, a US idea has emerged in order to create a double-win situation. “Let’s give away the ICANN to the rest of the world.” From DC to London, Paris, Geneva, Istanbul, Rio, Bali, the idea is getting more popular according to sources at the IGF and other stakeholders who declined to be identified at this stage. What’s the plan? The ICANN would become an international body, away from US control. Officially. Of course, it is hard to imagine that this would affect the 13 global Internet ‘root-servers’ run by entities based in the US (Verisign, USC-ISI, Cogent, Maryland University, Nasa, Internet Systems Consortium, Defense Information Systems Agency, United States Army, ICANN), one in the UK (RIPE NCC), one in Japan (WIDE Project), and one in Sweden (Autonomica).

For the plan to work to ‘sacrifice’ the ICANN and impose a multi-stakeholder neoliberal model, the US needs to give the ICANN an international shine, still not a UN one. There enters an unexpected player: the Swiss who have been suffering much of the US tax blame, and lost their banking secrecy under its twist, have now a possibility to calm the fiscal US storm by giving to a future ICANN a nest, which would be “neutral” and “international”. It would look UN-style without being UN. It would also reinforce the multi-stakeholder shine of the criticized ICANN. A clear definition of what means the later model is still unclear, and this vagueness might be its most enjoyable advantage. Such an institutional animal would have much room for improvisation and special arrangements – as ICANN did for 15 years so far.

There is a danger that corporations’ voice would equal if not overpass all governmental voices. Civil society would also participate but as their funding often comes from Corporations, they might not be so independent. Of course, the Brazilians whose president has turned this into a personal matter would have an easy reward to collect, as they could claim they have obtained a major change in Internet Governance.

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has announced during her NY speech at the UN that her country will submit a resolution in order to change the course of the Internet governance before December 16, 2013, when the UN General assembly will take a break for 13 weeks. As the US would certainly appreciate this resolution never to surface, the president of ICANN, Fadi Chéhade visited Brazil on October 7. Chéhade met Brazilian Communication minister, Paulo Bernardo, and they agreed that Brazil would host a meeting in April 2014 in Rio de Janeiro.

“I understand that the Internet, as a new feature, requires active participation by governments, their respective agencies within the United Nations, but also users, civil society, and technicians, who after all make the Internet work”

Chehadé defended, adding that corporations and academics should also participate to the debate.

“We must not allow economic, political and religious interests to interfere in the free circulation of ideas”

Bernardo commented. This is why these days, there is growing excitement in order to announce that the ICANN might move away from a Californian non profit to a more international, multi-stakeholder model, still keeping the governments and ITU at bay in a renewed Governmental Advisory Committee already existing in the current ICANN. Last week, during a UN Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (on Internet related public issues), an AT&T employee and representative of an Indian business chamber said:

“Business believes that stakeholders at the future table need to be on a equal footing to make decisions related to Internet policy.”

According to one participant to the meeting, a lot of the present working group members from private sector and civil society supported this view enthusiastically. Ultimately, such a idea would lead corporations and governments to establish together the future of Internet policy making.

On December 6, in Bern, a forum will gather a group of Swiss authorities and US stakeholders such as Internet Society and ICANN representatives. They will talk about the “Institutionalization of Global Internet Governance, Multistakeholderism, Multilateralism and Beyond”. Frédéric Riehl, vice-director of the Swiss Federal Office of Communications will explain the new positioning of Switzerland in the Internet Governance landscape. The participants will also assess the multilateral model such as the ones from ITU, WTO and WIPO, during a debate moderated by Tarek Kamel, senior advisor to the ICANN President for governmental engagement. Probably the best person to do so if one considers the objective of the meeting. Everything seems to go in the right direction for the new ICANN that might join soon the Internet Society, already headquartered in Geneva.

Giving away the ICANN might please a few; the Swiss, the Brazilians, and the usual faithful digital US allies such as the Swedish and British, but what’s about the Germans, the French and other Europeans, not to mention the Africans and Asians. As the single market for Telecom in Europe is at stake these days, the Europeans might have a serious talk.

By the way, what are the media telling us on this huge battle and challenge? They might buy the ‘internationalization’ of the ICANN as a good step forward (!?). Many among foreign governments might not go for it. The first Internet political war is going to last until we get a fair and open debate.

Follow Jean-Christophe Nothias on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jc_nothias

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