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The foolish dream of an emperor

Contrary to the official story found in many texts about WSIS, the drive behind WSIS was not the will to bridge the digital divide. WSIS was initiated through the influence of Yoshio Utsumi, the Secretary General of the ITU, in order to wrestle control of the Internet from the existing organizations that manage it. Mr. Utsumi wanted to leave behind him a legacy that would guarantee ITU’s continued role as the all-encompassing body controlling everything strategically related to telecommunications. To that aim, the ITU passed a resolution at its 1998 Plenipotentiary Conference calling for the United Nations’ endorsement in holding a summit to discuss issues and develop solutions related to the deployment of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). This resolution marked the birth of WSIS.

The ITU has prevailed in telecommunication since 1865 but now, thanks to the Internet, it is in dire straits. With technologies like VOIP (Voice over the Internet Protocol), the Internet is quickly overtaking the conventional telephony channels and making them rapidly irrelevant. As a desperate last attempt to prevent the ITU from falling into oblivion, Mr. Utsumi imagined in 1998 that taking over the Internet would inject his organization with newfound pertinence.

Throughout history, emperors’ dreams have shaped the world and determined the faith of other human beings, however lacking they were in good sense. Emperors’ dreams have funneled unimaginable amounts of financial and human resources, and simple humans’ dreams have historically been overshadowed by emperors’ grand designs.

Under the cover of the commendable and noble goal of bridging the digital divide, the ITU’s emperor has in fact used WSIS to push his agenda to wrestle control of the Internet from existing organizations like ICANN. One needs only compare the time spent during WSIS arguing about Internet governance to that spent on all other issues related to bridging the digital divide to realize where country delegations were steered. Governance discussions whose outcome have no impact whatsoever on users represented well over half the efforts expended at WSIS while other issues with direct implications on Internet users have suffered a sad lack of attention. Issues such as improving access to the Internet, capacity building, usability, spam management, cyber-security, multilingualism and ways to provide access to the Internet to people using oral languages would have taken up most discussion time if WSIS organizers and attendees truly cared about having a positive impact on Internet users worldwide.

The truth is that WSIS is about control, control of the Internet—not the well-being of Internet users. But the people who have built the Internet will not let control of it fall in the hands of an emperor with a foolish dream. We have come to an age where people, sometimes, can now resist the designs of even the most powerful emperors. The Internet community must realize the importance of what has gone on at WSIS and what will continue with the Internet Governance Forum. The fight for common sense to prevail is far from over.

WSIS has directly cost millions of dollars and has incurred even greater indirect costs to attending countries. Now that it is over and that the ITU has still not gained the control it wanted, the ITU, supported by a host of developing countries where it has gained mind share through generous financial assistance and by some unsuspecting countries of the European Union who where blinded by their overarching fancy to oppose the United States (even to their own detriment), has obtained that a forum be created where Internet governance issues will continue to be debated.

This will go on until the ITU gains what it wants or until another emperor there understands that shoplifting control of the Internet, while it may seem good for the ITU, would spell disaster for Internet users. Mr. Utsumi’s reign will end in 2006. Let’s hope that his heir will be able to direct his constituents to work to improve the condition of Internet users rather than waste precious resources on trying to overtake control of the Internet from organizations that are already doing a great job at managing it. As one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the 20th century, the Internet has the markings of great products: it works and it does so seamlessly. For the 15% part of the world population that has access to the Internet, using it has become so easy that users sometimes don’t even realize they are using it. The most important task ahead for us is to connect in a meaningful manner the remaining 85% of human beings who are still without access to the Internet.

I hope we will fight to the very end to preserve the inherent openness that makes the Internet so great today, and the bottom-up, adaptive and powerful processes that have allowed us to make it both the most amazing piece of engineering work and the most powerful communication tool that human kind has produced to date.

No other organization than the Internet Society has the reputation, wherewithal and stamina to coalesce the communities that will save the Internet from the quicksands of inappropriately stale and top-down organizations such as the UN and the ITU.

3 Responses to “The foolish dream of an emperor”

  1. Patrick Vande Walle Says:

    “Governance discussions whose outcome have no impact whatsoever on users represented well over half the efforts”

    I would not be as affirmative as you are regarding the fact that it does not affect users. ccTLDs for example have much to do with patriotic feelings, whether or not the technical community agrees to this fact. The potential disappearance of a ccTLD under the current framework is a geostrategic issue. Porn TLDs shock some cultures. So yes, it is political.

    As for the “emperor”, there is one already and he made it clear he does not want to share its treasure. We should make sure their is no emperor, not even a soft-handed one.

  2. Luc Faubert Says:

    My point is that the Internet and its users will not benefit from the ITU controlling governance of the Internet–whether it be technical or policy-related. If what we truly care about is making the Internet available to the people who do not have access to it, then we need to concentrate on a whole different set of issues.

    The organizations managing the Internet have evolved in the past and I have faith in their ability to continue to do so and self-organize in order to better serve the Internet and its users. I think they can continue to do this as they did in the past–without the ITU or the UN–and with a newfound sense of the importance of taking into account national interests.

    One of the changes that must inevitably come, as you allude to, will be for the US to relinquish its veto on ICANN affairs. When it does, ICANN must not fall under control of another emperor. It is our responsability to ensure that, as you say, “there is no emperor, not even a soft-handed one”.

  3. Lauren Coletta Says:

    While I understand that many can get whipped up about ICANN it seems to me that they have done a decent job about keeping the Internet open and functional. If we are to continue the debate in Athens the priority shouldn’t be governance. Let’s talk about infrastructure investment, access issues, the imperative of net neutrality. In other words what really matters.