geert lovink on Tue, 25 Nov 2003 10:59:19 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Milton Mueller

Trail and Error in Internet Governance
ICANN, WSIS and the making of a global civil society.

Interview with Milton Mueller
By Geert Lovink

In 2002 MIT Press published Milton Mueller's Ruling the Root, one of the
first detailed investigations into the Internet domain name policies. In
it Mueller describes the history of the Internet address and name space
and the root zone file and root name servers, without which the Internet
would not be able to function. Ever since the birth of ICANN (Internet
Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) in 1998, the private company
that oversees 'name space', issues are becoming less technical and more
political. Governments seek more influence in a world that is
traditionally run by a select group of engineers and corporate managers.
Milton Mueller is professor at the School of Information Studies, Syracuse
University (NY) and director of the Convergence Center. He has widely
published about regulatory issues in the global telecommunications
industry. Milton Mueller is also editor and regular contributor to the
ICANNwatch website.

GL: In Ruling the Root you mention the Internet's technical cadre's
'allergy to democratic methods and public accountability.' You mention
that Internet pioneers, such as Jon Postel, refused to run for office in
any electoral system. Those who ran the Internet in the early days were
supposed to be selected with the consensus of the 'community'. Would you
say that this mentality, being a mixture of male engineering and hippie
culture, is lying at the heart of the ICANN controversies? Would a
cultural geneology help us to understand the current situation?

MM: The "community consensus" idea of the early days of the Internet (1986
- 1996) was indeed part of a specific culture that developed among the
(mostly male) engineers. Like all social groupings, that culture developed
its own pecking order and ruling elite, but it also had communitarian,
democratic and liberal elements. Democratic in the sense in which the
Magna Carta was democratic - peers demanding that their prerogatives not
be impinged on by the King. Liberal in that they supported open systems
and resisted the state. Communitarian in that there was a strong sense of
collective identity and responsibility and because one of the key issues
for them was whether you were inside or outside their community. Among
these types of homogeneous cultures with shared norms, you can develop a
rough community consensus.

You do need to understand this culture and history if you want to delve
deeply into the politics of DNS and the Internet (not just ICANN). By that
I mean if you want to engage in Internet politics at the level of meeting
and persuading individual people, then you need to know who are the
anointed elders of this culture and what kind of norms exist among this
community. But I would not say that this culture is any longer at the
HEART of the controversies. It was from 1995-97, but gTLD-MoU and the
creation of ICANN was basically the process by which this community came
to terms with other political, social and business interests. "Community
consensus" after that became a ridiculous and hypocritical notion.

As the theorists of institutional development have demonstrated, the
process of forging new institutions is all about fighting over
distributional effects-who is favored and who is disadvantaged when rules
are defined and governance structures are erected. Of course there could
be no consensus at that point. For example, any policy or rule that was
favored by Network Solutions could not be agreed by the IAB-IETF elders,
and any policy or rule favored by the trademark interests could not be
agreed by the civil libertarians. So the invocation of this notion after
1998 shows that either the person is ignorant of what is going on or was
trying to appropriate the legitimacy and the norms of the engineering
community in a fundamentally dishonest way.

GL: Would it make sense to analyse ICANN (and its predecessors) as a test
model for some sort of secretive 'world government' that is run by self
appointed experts? Could you explain why governments are seen as incapable
of running the Internet? This all comes close to a conspiracy theory. I am
not at all a fan of such reductionist easy-to-understand explanations.
However, the discontent with 'global governance' discourse is widespread
and it seems that the International Relations experts have little
understanding how the Internet is actually run. Where do you think
theorization of Internet governance should start?

MM: ICANN is a test model for a global governance structure based on
contract rather than territorial jurisdiction. That is an experiment worth
having. The problem with ICANN is not that it is secretive. It is far less
so than most international intergovernmental organizations. ICANN is in
fact very political. It poses governance problems of the first order and
directly involves states. It legislates rights, regulates an industry,
allocates resources, and is trying to set de jure standards. So there must
be political accountability. That means membership, elections, or

As for the "governments are incapable of running the Internet" part, the
consensus is widespread because of direct experience and deeply engrained
memories. Start with the OSI vs. TCP/IP controversy of the 1980s. Then
move to Yahoo vs. France, which regardless of which side you take
indicates a jurisdictional problem that must, if taken to its logical
conclusion, point either toward globalism or toward re-engineering the
Internet to conform to territorial jurisdictions.

Now move to the present, as governments start to get aware of ICANN and
more involved in it, what do they do? What is the first thing they ask
for? Is it defending consumer rights, end user civil liberties? Better
representation for the public? No. All they are asking for is their own
pound of flesh. Governments want special rights to country names in new
TLDs. Intergovernmental organizations want special protection of their
acronyms in the name space. Government law enforcement agencies want
untrammelled access to user data via Whois. In WSIS, they ask for making
ICANN into an intergovernmental organization, so that states can control
it, and presumably kick civil society out of all serious deliberations, as
they do in WSIS.

This behavior is not an accident or an aberration. Governments participate
in Internet governance to further their own power and pursue their own
organizational aggrandizement. The emergence of countervailing power
centers such as the tech community and ICANN is a good thing.

You'd be surprised at how much of the world is run by small interlocking
communities of experts, and naive leftists would no doubt be thoroughly
surprised at how poorly the world would work if that were not the case.
For example, think of the importance of WiFi standards-those are set by
IEEE committees which are non-political and self-governing. Or think of
how self-governing the academic community is or wants to be. Usually these
kinds of systems work well and stay in the background until their
operations create some kind of political problem demanding a more public
resolution. This can happen in two ways: a public disaster which causes
people to point fingers at responsible parties, or some kind of property
rights conflict, which requires public and institutional solutions.

The real issue here is raised by your statement that "International
Relations experts have little understanding how the Internet is actually
run." True. The intimate relationship between technical knowledge and
governance structures that Lawrence Lessig wrote about creates a space
where technical experts assume political power, or policy requires deep
knowledge of the technical system. Theorization should start by
investigating the way complex, distributed technical systems respond to
shape international rules and norms, and vice versa.

GL: In 2000 ICANN organized so-called Membership at Large elections to
have members of the Internet community on its board. Soon after they were
cancelled. How do look back at this experiment?

MM: I do not consider it a failure. It was an experiment that succeeded.
It clearly revealed the preferences of the wider public following Internet
governance, and for that reason, it was killed. Everyone involved in ICANN
up to that point knew how artificial the representational structure it
created was, and how that structure distributed power to a very small,
unrepresentative, insulated group. We knew all along-in every forum, from
IFWP to the DNSO to the Board selections-that ICANN was under the control
of a small, self-selected clique dominated by Joe Sims. It was stunningly
obvious to me, at least, that if there ever was a fair and open election
conducted among the people involved that this clique would receive an
overwhelmingly negative vote.

So the ruling party lost the election. That was perceived as a problem by
ICANN management, and the solution was to eliminate elections. The fact
that so many have accepted the ex post construction of this, that the
election was a "failure," shows how effective they have been in papering
over the message that was sent. I recognize that when some people refer to
the "failure" of the elections they are referring to mechanical problems,
or more subtly and significantly, to the incursion of nationalistic
competition that occurred in Europe and Asia. But again, I would argue
that these phenomena were signs of success, not failure.

The mechanical problems occurred because more people registered to vote
that ICANN was prepared for. The level of participation surprised even me.
Think about the implications of that-a global electorate. Of course,
election opponents could have claimed-more reasonably-that a small turnout
was a symptom of failure too. If you look at the regional results for
Africa, where something like 35 people appointed an ICANN Board member,
you get a sense of what a failed election might have looked like.

The election also revealed some issues regarding mass voter registration
in China and Japan. But it was unclear whether this was due to attempted
manipulation or to language problems which required Asian voters to go to
English-language web sites to be enfranchised. Either way, the mechanical
and verification issues could be solved. At what price? That was the only
real criticism that was ever made of elections. Could ICANN afford to do
them? One could debate cost-benefit here, but that was not the debate we

As for nationalistic competition (e.g., ICANN membership races between
Germany and France, or between China and Japan) here again the election
simply revealed in a realistic way the ways in which voters define their
preferences. In many parts of the world people still define their identity
in national terms and would prefer a candidate from their "own" country.
The same was true of any democratic experiment - in U.S. Presidential
elections, people are more likely to favor candidates from their own
state. So what? One of the most intelligent things that Esther Dyson ever
said about ICANN was her comment that the only solution to this was the
development of the Internet-governance equivalent of political parties.
This would have to occur over the long term, obviously.

GL: Confronted with Internet governance many cyber activists find
themselves in a catch 22 situation. On the one hand they do not trust
government bureaucrats to run the Internet, out of a justified fear that
regulation through multilateral negotiations might lead to censorship and
stifle innovation. On the other hand they criticize the corporate agendas
of the engineering class that is anything but representative. What models
should activists propose in the light of the World Summit on the
Information Society? There seems to be no way back to a nation state
'federalist' solution. Should they buy into the 'global civil society'

MM: This is an excellent question and a big problem. It speaks to the lack
of intellectual grounding and the absence of a solid institutional agenda
that afflicts so many activists. Do we have alternative and better models
for global governance? So much of what happened in the ICANN arena
happened by default, because no one had a better proposal that significant
groups had converged on and understood the implications of. But the
problem goes well beyond Internet governance. In WSIS I see a danger that
cyber activism gets linked to an anti-capitalist, anti-globalization
movement, which I see as both reactionary and a certain dead end. We need
to create new forms of democratic and liberal institutions at the global
level, and tying that agenda to old-style protectionism, statism and
discredited neo-Marxist ideologies will take all the energy surrounding
that project and flush it down the toilet.

The Catch 22 you mention is not a minor issue: it is fundamental. Do not
trust anyone who cannot explicitly address that problem and recognize the
negatives of national governments and their inter-national orgs, as well
as the problems of the technical and business people. We have to set up
structures at the international level that are governmental in nature, but
we need creative ideas about how to distribute and balance power.

GL: One of the controversial issues is the power of the U.S. government
over the Internet and the fact that, as you write, ICANN is a U.S.
government contractor and a private company that operates under U.S. law.
The fight over global governance, in part, is about a transfer of U.S.
power, if I understand it well, which seems unlikely in this political
climate. Is it true that the Pentagon can switch off entire countries, as
it was rumoured during the Kosovo conflict and Iraqi war, many people ask.
On top of that there is the mistrust between country code top level
domains (ccTLDs) and the ICANN staff, who have often been accused of
bullying and obstruction in order to further their own aims. Will the U.S.
government always, in the last instance, retain vital control over the
Internet? Sorry, but like many US-Americans you look so terribly
libertarian. You are suspicious of governments, except your own. Perhaps
in the end you don't want to give away sovereignty over the Internet to a
non-US body.

MM: Not suspicious of the U.S. Government? Me? Ruling the Root called the
U.S. government (USG) residual control of the root a "ticking time bomb"
and called for it to be dealt with. Given the USG's movement toward
distinctly unlibertarian attitudes on surveillance, security and war since
Ruling the Root's publication I believe that even more strongly. With or
without ICANN, under certain conditions the USG and its allies would be
able to switch off entire (marginalized) countries. I have already
embarrassed certain members of NTIA by publicly calling for the U.S. to
give up its control (instead of privately grumbling about it, which is
what most European authorities do), which of course has meant that I am
exiled from certain key policy circles. The only thing holding me and
certain other critics of ICANN back is that ICANN's current
representational structure is so warped that we fear turning it loose
completely. At least now, the residual USG control provides some third
party oversight, however pathetic. And to be honest, the deeper I have
delved into this situation the more I have come to believe that the OECD
states, while perhaps ambivalent, are fully acquiescent in the USG's
current position. This is a kind of hypocrisy that any student of
international relations is used to seeing: let the USG take the lead,
complain smugly to relevant constituencies about those darn Americans,
while privately getting a few key concessions out of them and thanking
your lucky stars that they have to take the responsibilities instead of
you. It is also worth emphasizing strongly that simple jealousy of US
dominance is no substitute for a coherent policy regarding governance. The
issue is the distribution of power, not nationality. An Internet
governance system dominated by the EU or China or Brazil might make
Europeans, Chinese or Brazilians happier (or would it?) but it would
hardly be more just.

GL: Are you really suggesting that all anti-corporate protesters want to
return to an old school government control model? These movements are very
diverse. I can assure you that you are making a caricature. People have
moved on from the cliches you repeat here and look for 'another world'.
Why don't you stress that?

MM: I know that the protesters are diverse. I know full well that most of
them do not want, or would say they do not want, to return to old models.
But that is a lot easier to say than it is to pull off. I am talking about
a process that I have seen happen before; that I have witnessed first-hand
in the 1970s. A mass movement forms, with wide appeal, based on a vague
and inchoate sense of dissatisfaction with some aspect of society. The
movement itself is diverse and non-ideological, but over time those with a
well-defined ideology and a strong commitment take control of its
direction, because only a coherent ideology provides the strategic
guidance needed as things progress.

I see the danger is that instead of doing new thinking about global
institutions and the relationship between market, government and society
we fall back into re-asserting the old left-right dichotomy. I am not
caricaturing any participants in current processes; I am just asserting
that this could happen.

You can easily get a sense from your own language as to how it could
happen. You characterize them as "anti-corporate" protestors. What does it
mean to be "anti-corporate?" A corporation is a legal form of commercial
organization that limits the directors' personal liability. You probably
can 't have an industrial economy, much less a post-industrial one,
without that. To be "for" or "against" corporations is meaningless because
on any given communication-information policy issue, you can find various
corporations on different sides. That idea that corporations per se are
the problem isn't tenable; whatever those folks are protesting, it isn't

Of course, I know what you mean: "anti-corporate" is just a stand-in for a
wide complex of cultural and political beliefs, involving sentiments of
humanism, environmentalism, support for cultural diversity, and opposition
to commercialism, vaguely "democratic" sentiments and, oftentimes,
individual rights and freedoms. But a litany of "good things" is not
enough to transform the world. A question I like to ask is, what does
"democracy" mean at the global level? A global electorate? Avenues for
civil society participation? Better representation within
intergovernmental organizations? If you can't answer that question
readily, there are lots of vested interests who will answer it for you.

Social movements create the instabilities and political opportunities that
make change possible; but at critical junctures one must come forward with
specific institutional structures, laws, policies and develop support for
them. That is where I see a danger. It is very easy for the agenda of
anti-free trade protestors to be coopted by simple protectionism - in
fact, that is already happening. It is very easy for an emotional
 "anti-corporate"-ism to be coopted by simple state regulation or state
socialism. Governments are still very powerful and so are the special
interests that thrive on protectionism. That will happen unless a new
ideology with a more sophisticated institutional agenda is put forward.
Good intentions are not enough. At the very least, I would hope that in
the post-communist, post-totalitarian world we can lay to rest the issue
of market allocation and the price system and look for institutions and
policies that improve things within that framework. And we need to
recognize the important contributions that freedom of trade and investment
has made in developing the telecommunications infrastructure.

GL: Your recent research project looks into media activism and how "civil
society groups" can operate on a transnational level. What is your opinion
about "global civil society," the role of NGOs and their alleged lack of
accountability. Should there be a Greenpeace of cyberspace that can
operate on a global level. So far no one can match the power of
transnational corporations such as MCI/WorldCom, BT or Microsoft. Is the
global NGO model the way to go? Will you eventually link this topic with
issues of Internet governance?

MM: That research project (typically of me) took on a huge problem of the
sort that takes at least five years to produce much of substance, yet this
was done at a time when everyone aware of it (justifiably) wants instant
results. I investigated the concept of "media activism" in order to
destroy it and replace it with a new self-concept that tried to synthesize
advocacy around all areas of communications and information technology
policy. Like the concept of "environmentalism" such a movement should be
able to encompass all the technical subareas such as privacy, IPR, freedom
of information, telecom infrastructure regulation and policy as well as
the traditional mass media issues. Of course, the smarter "media"
activists were already doing that or moving in that direction, but labels
are important.

My opinion is that the concept of "global civil society" is probably the
best point of departure we have right now for motivating transnational
collective action. I particularly like the formulation of John Keane
( The alternatives to civil
society seem to be religion (e.g., Islamic fundamentalism) anti-capitalism
(which at this stage of the game probably belongs in the religion
category), or some kind of racism. To me, the issue is less one of
substantive policy positions (which only have meaning in a specific
institutional context) than it is one of institution-building at the
international level.

I am unimpressed with the complaints about the "lack of accountability" of
NGOs and civil society representatives. Of course it is entirely true-but
also entirely unavoidable at this stage. Institutions are what create
accountability, and if the global institutional environment does not
provide any means for formal representation of non-governmental and
non-corporate interests then of course the ones that assert themselves
into the process are "formally" not accountable. We are dealing with a
form of entrepreneurial politics at the transnational level, where those
who have the intelligence, persistence and resources to participate are
the ones who get to define the agenda. The fact that such activity can
emerge out of the interstices of the system is a good thing. Longer term,
there will be more accountability. Of course I link analysis of
transnational collective action in communication-information to the
problem of Internet governance, as well as WSIS, and other arenas.
Internet governance is particularly interesting because of the
institutional innovation it attempted, although the policy issues it poses
are somewhat obscure.

GL: So you are saying, act now, democratize later? Sounds a bit like
global land grabbing to me, in the hope that a 'good' elite and not the
bad boys will be in charge. Who are the potentially interesting
antagonists in this saga? Not the Internet Society, I suppose.

MM: You say, "act now, democratize later" and it sounds bad. But let me
respond by asking: if you don't act, how can you ever democratize? And are
you saying that no one should act until and unless they are sure that
their agenda and their organizations are perfectly representative? Seems
like a recipe for paralysis.

GL: How do you look at WSIS? Some see this event as a desperate attempt by
ITU-circles to regain ground they lost in the nineties. However, there are
not much indications for that. Others see it as a painful demonstration of
the global inability to address the real issues and a useless, politically
correct Digital Divide circus. I have the impression that, for instance,
activists do not quite know what to make of it. Of course there is the
neo-liberal agenda around intellectual property rights but apart from that
the 'information society' is still in search for topics and controversies.
This is not the time for United Nations conferences. Would you agree?

MM: In the research project you mention above I will attempt to situate
WSIS in historical context, relating it to the UNESCO New World
Information and Communications Order of the 1970s. My initial view of it
was almost exactly as you describe above: a politically correct Digital
Divide circus, similar to the DOT Force, where fine noises would be made
and nothing would happen. I still believe that nothing concrete will come
of it, but as an institutional development process I am finding it more
interesting. I think the small tactical opening that was given to civil
society has been important, and that the civil society activity associated
with WSIS has already stolen the show. WSIS thus provides a fertile field
for an emergent communication-information movement to come into contact
and in an initial confrontation with traditional IGOs, develop a stronger
sense of where to go next.


Milton Mueller's homepage: His global
civil society research: ICANNWatch:

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