Elon University

An interview transcript from the first Internet Governance Forum, Athens, Greece Oct/Nov 2006: Milton Mueller

IGF 2006 LogoThis is a transcript from a series of video interviews designed to assess major issues tied to the diffusion of the internet. It is the record of one of many interviews conducted in 2006 with international internet stakeholders from 18 different nations at the world’s first Internet Governance Forum in Athens, Greece. The Athens IGF was the first of five annual global events administrated by the UN to focus on discussion of the overarching issues tied to the future of information and communications technologies. More than 1,200 participants shared information, experiences and best practices.

Mueller HeadshotMilton Mueller- Director, Master of Science in Telecommunications and Network Management program, Syracuse University; co-founder of the Global Internet Governance Academic Network. Based in Syracuse, New York, USA.

The Transcript:

Q: Who are you here with, and what relevance do they have to this conference?

A: I’m with the Internet Governance Project. We started in 2004, during WSIS (the World Summit on the Information Society), because we saw the whole WSIS process starting to focus on internet governance, and we had a lot of expertise on that – “we” being me and some colleagues at Syracuse University (in New York in the US) and some other universities. We thought we really needed to have a mechanism, a vehicle, to put our expertise into the process in a way that would help the diplomats in the policy debates – provide an independent voice.

The (internet governance) forum basically continues the dialogue of the summit, and we are probably recognized as one of the main sources of expertise about ICANN-related issues in particular. It’s important for us to be here.

Q: What expertise have you offered so far at this conference?

A: We know a lot about the governance of the domain-name system and the IP-addressing system and all of the policy issues that have arisen because of that and the particular, unusual governance form of ICANN. One of the biggest controversial issues, of course, is the US oversight – the US government’s unilateral oversight – of ICANN. We have been one of the few groups taking the lead on proposing alternatives to that – ways of moving beyond it. We also have been addressing some more-forward-looking issues about DNS security – the implementation of a new security protocol called DNS Sec. We have also taken the lead role in talking about the blocking and filtering of internet content – censorship, basically, but using technical mechanisms to try to block what people can see or do on the internet.

Q: What are some of the alternatives to ICANN?

A: We are proposing basically to continue with the original idea behind ICANN, which is that it would be non-governmental. We would like to see the U.S. pull out of ICANN, just like some of us would like to see it pull out of Iraq. ICANN is not quite as big a disaster as Iraq. The US said it was going to supervise it for a couple of years and then it was going to pull out and turn it into a fully private-sector organization that made policy from the bottom up. And the US did not continue with that policy. It kind of got frozen in the middle of the transition, and that’s caused a lot of the political problems that we’re facing in WSIS and in the Forum, because other governments are saying, “Well if the US is in there, then we should be in there, too.”

The alternative that we’re proposing is basically to denationalize ICANN and completely privatize it, but that means that you have to make it more accountable to the world, the people who are directly effected by domain name registrations and IP address allocations. ICANN has to do some organizational reforms before it’s cut loose completely, but that’s what we would like to see.

Other people are proposing to multi-lateralize ICANN, to bring more governments in and have more of a collective, UN-type approach. Other people maybe think you can tweak the status quo.

Q: Why don’t you think it would be good to make it multi-lateral, with more governments coming in?

A: We think, based on our experience in ICANN and in WSIS, that governments are fundamentally interested in sort of a very narrow, territorial approach to internet, and they’re interested in advancing their own power and in geopolitical issues that really have little to do with the coordination of the internet identifiers.

Q: How would it change things if ICANN was a private-sector organization?

A: The basic difference would be that ICANN would be autonomous, so the representative processes that go into the making of policy in ICANN would be more independent. The US government sort of intervenes in ICANN or shapes ICANN in various ways that suit its interests, and sometimes that completely short-circuits – you know people put a lot of time and energy into building up a policy through ICANN’s own organic processes, and then at the top they discover, oops, the US doesn’t want it that way, or they made a deal in the back room with VeraSign, or something happened that the US didn’t like, so they stop it. That’s been our experience.

Q: Do you think national governments should be in charge of censorship?

A: We are against almost all forms of censorship. Obviously, when crimes against people are involved, like with child pornography or with certain kinds of images that violate people’s privacy, where they’re involuntarily subjected to some kind of thing which is transmitted on the internet, then you can regulate content legitimately. But when you just block certain sites and prevent people from seeing them regardless of why they want to see it, regardless of whether there’s any victim, we’re against that.

We think national governments should not block or filter content at all. Obviously, most of the world’s governments will never agree with us, maybe even most of the world’s people will never agree with us, because it seems as if everybody wants to block or censor something. We don’t have any problem if individuals want to adopt filtering software on their own – it’s their choice – but governments do it for everybody in a territory, and we’re very concerned about the internet becoming increasingly fragmented and territorial and boundaried.

That’s one of the beautiful things about the internet. It sort of wiped away all those boundaries for a while. And now governments are re-inserting them, and we would like to see a global agreement that would clear a path for free movement of information across borders.

Q: Is it likely that the internet may become divided into “walled gardens”?

A: I’m quite optimistic coming out of this conference. The (internet governance) forum has put this kind of blocking and censorship in the spotlight, and the people in favor of censorship are pretty much on the defensive here. The more you discuss this issue, the harder it becomes to justify the kinds of censorship that are taking place. It’s not just the Chinese. European countries are doing it, and growing numbers of countries are asserting this kind of blocking, but the movement against it within the Internet Governance Forum is becoming stronger. There were three different events yesterday on various kinds of censorship issues, and the tone of all three of them was very much critical of censorship.

Q: Do you think this will lead to compromise or a breaking away of different countries?

A: There’s going to always be some degree of territorial control, and in fact, in terms of the global internet, if a government says, “We won’t have certain kinds of internet content hosted in our territory,” that’s fine. It may not be fine in a personal sense, but it’s not a big problem if they just say, “You can’t have a server with that kind of content here in France,” or “here in Germany” or “here in China.” Because then the content providers can just not put servers there. But when they start blocking and filtering what their people can see in the internet, that’s where we think there’s a problem. So we would like to see the governments agree to limit their control to what goes on in their own borders and not try to control the borderless internet.

Q: How do you think accessibility for developing countries should be addressed, particularly from a business standpoint?

A: I’m very much in favor of competitive, open-market approaches to the development of the telecom infrastructure. I’m going to be on a panel this afternoon about access and connectivity – infrastructure issues. It is not a simple problem. You know, people talk about a digital divide. There’s nothing digital about it. It’s the divide between countries that have money and developed economies and functioning institutions and countries that maybe don’t have good institutions, maybe they’ve just gone through a war or maybe they have no wealth and are just beginning to develop, or countries that have a combination of all of those problems, or they have very bad domestic telecommunications policies – things that restrict growth.

There are so many complicated things that can effect how the whole society develops, and that’s really what determines the level of internet penetration.

Q: So you don’t think the developed world should provide access, you think the market should work itself out?

A: I think the developed world should help, but help is a drop in the bucket. What we can do is a one-time thing. You know, “Here’s a bunch of money – go build something.” If you look at a country like China, which at one point was adding the equivalent of a U.S. Bell operating company every two or three years, in terms of the number of access lines they were building – you don’t get that kind of growth by handing people things. It has to be internally generated and sustainable, so it’s not like I’m hostile to the idea of transferring wealth to these countries if I thought it would do good. I just don’t think that that is possibly going to be a solution to the billions and billions of dollars in investment and sustainable enterprises that have to develop for the access problem to be attacked and solved.

Q: What is your greatest hope and what is your greatest fear for the future of the internet?

A: My greatest hope is that indeed we will recognize the transnational borderless nature of communication, and that we will all come to accept that the benefits of this far outweigh the problems, and we can handle the problems. I’m very optimistic about the potential of allowing people to have access to the information, access to technology. I guess I’m kind of a liberal optimist in that I think that people are basically good. You have to have strong rules to control bad things and bad people, but, fundamentally when you have this powerful technology and people get their hands on it good things will happen. For many countries, there’s nowhere to go but up.

I think my biggest fear is about the US. The US is becoming so inward-looking, so paranoid. We used to be the beacon of liberty; we used to be the place that people looked to. It seems to me that we’re so worried about protecting ourselves, that this sort of center of freedom and center of the internet can just sort of collapse and become this security-driven state where we’re spying on each other all the time and we’re restricting the technology and building all kinds of boundaries and restrictions into it. My worries are about the US – my own country.

Q: Describe the future impact of the internet in one word.

A: Diverse.

This video transcript is offered for use under a Creative Commons Noncommercial License allowing no derivative works. Executive producers, Erin Barnett and Janna Quitney Anderson; chief engineer, Bryan Baker; videographers, Barnett and Baker; editor, Barnett.