The European Commission is trying to carve a mediator role for itself in the global debate over the future of internet governance, taking its distance from the US but also from the idea of a United Nations' leadership of the Web, supported by Russia and China.
With global negotiations over the future of the Web in a standstill, the EU made its position clearer yesterday (12 February).
Neelie Kroes, the EU’s digital agenda commissioner, presented a strategy calling for a "clear timeline for the globalisation of ICANN," the US-backed, non-profit corporation which de facto runs the internet.
The EU appeal to make ICANN more open and to decrease US control is not new.
The move is obviously gaining strength after the disclosure of the illegal US spying activities revealed by the former contractor for the National Security Agency Edward Snowden.
In announcing her strategy, Kroes underlined that the EU move comes at a time of "broken trust" caused in part by "large-scale internet surveillance scandals".
Kroes described the new "globalised" ICANN she had in mind: "We want to make sure that everyone has a voice in the debate," the commissioner said in a statement, a vision which is in sharp contrast with the current near-monopoly of Web governance enjoyed by the US.
But her criticism of Washington did not go further than this. She was instead keen to underline that despite all its flaws, the existing internet governance had its merits.
"We do not need a revolutionary approach to managing the internet," Kroes said.
Between Beijing and Washington
The commissioner is indeed well aware of the fact that the spying scandals have seriously damaged the US's negotiating power in the diplomatic battle over the future of the internet. And it is of no interest for the EU to further weaken its traditional ally in a global confrontation against heavyweights, such as China and Russia, where not only the Web is at stake, but also the protection of basic freedoms and human rights.
Beijing and Moscow have long lobbied for stronger control of the internet and its users on the grounds of countering cybercrime, but also with the likely aim of taming dissidents who increasingly make their anti-establishment voices heard through social networks and the Net.
“Our fundamental freedoms and human rights are not negotiable and they must be protected online. We want to officially anchor the internet governance on principles of freedom,” Kroes hammered in her speech.
Sending an even clearer message, Kroes underlined that the European Commission "rejects a United Nations or governmental takeover of the Internet governance," as requested by Russia and China.
The two countries have been pushing for moving internet control from ICANN to the UN where they enjoy a strong say, not least because they are permanent members of the Security Council.
The alternative, or even the consequence of such a move, may be what many experts call a balkanisation of the internet, where the Web would lose its global nature and would be divided into several regional nets, each following different rules.
Also on this point, Kroes made clear what her position is: "We cannot allow the internet to unravel into a series of regional and national networks," she said.
Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake (ALDE), called for a debate in the European Parliament on internet governance and what the EU's strategy should be. "Safeguarding the open internet faces more and more challenges and must be a priority for the EU. Decisions and responsibilities are increasingly in the hands of a diverse group of governments, companies, organisations and internet users. Europe must defend the open internet and the rights and freedoms of its users with the greatest possible ambition", said Schaake in a statement.
“ICANN is pleased that the European Commission is emphasizing the need to sustain the multi-stakeholder approach to governing the Internet. It is an approach that is defined by global inclusivity, where voices from business, government and independent Internet users are welcome," Nigel Hickson, ICANN Vice President for Europe, said.
"We are looking forward to working together with all relevant global parties, not least the Greek Presidency of the European Council, to create policy solutions aimed at keeping the Internet open and unified, which is vital for the growth of national economies,” he added.
Like telephones, the Internet relies on numbers which identify computers and allow them to connect to one another. This identification process is coordinated at global level by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
ICANN was established as a not-profit corporation in 1998 with the backing of Washington. The agreement with the US administration is renewed every three years.
ICANN is responsible for defining internet domains, such as .com or .eu and for managing the Internet core directory.
The EU and several countries around the world have acknowledged the success story of the US-born internet, but have increasingly challenged the United States' sole control of Internet governance.
- 2-5 Sept. 2014: Internet Governance Forum, Istanbul
- Press release on Internet Governance strategy (12 Feb 2014)