The last major Internet governance fight -- or at least the last one to make it into the English-language mainstream media -- took place in 2005 during the run-up to a U.N. meeting called the World Summit on the Information Society. At that time, governments wound up agreeing more or less to maintain the status quo, due to a lack of consensus combined with loud opposition to increased U.N. management of Internet resources by human rights and free speech groups. A global coalition of activists, Internet companies, and some (but not all) democracies have once again joined forces as they did seven years ago to save the Internet from the U.N. yet again. Chances are that if they fight as hard as they did before, they can stop most of the new ITU proposals. But if they do win this battle, it will not be the last. "It's going to go on for some while now," says the Internet Society's Sally Shipman Wentworth, who is working to bolster international awareness and support for multistakeholder governance of an open Internet. In the long run, she warns, "there's no guarantee that the Internet or the telecommunications infrastructure as we know it today will emerge unscathed."
Defending a free and open global Internet requires a broad-based global movement with the stamina to engage in endless -- and often highly technical -- national and international policy battles. Fortunately, 2012 has seen major growth of that movement, starting with the January defeat in the United States of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which opponents argued would serve the entertainment industry's interests at the expense of Internet users' fundamental rights. Then in July came the defeat in the European Parliament of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), negotiated behind closed doors between the United States and 34 trading partners, which Internet freedom advocates widely opposed because it encourages governments to privilege the rights of certain copyright holders over the rights of everybody else who uses the Internet, without sufficient guarantees that the enforcement mechanisms won't be abused for political or other purposes. The political groundswell against ACTA in Europe and elsewhere is part of a worldwide movement against closed-door Internet policymaking conducted nationally and internationally by corporate and government elites.
On the heels of these victories, the ITU's plan to hold a closed-door meeting with a nontransparent policymaking process raised the ire of activists still energized from victories against SOPA and ACTA. An open letter signed by a broad coalition of civil society groups from all over the world has demanded that the December meeting in Dubai be opened to civil society participation, development of a formal public consultation process, and the public release of all policy documents. ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré declined to meet those demands, but agreed to publish one document listing all the proposals (with names of proposing countries and other details redacted). The format of the meeting and ITU policy formulation process will not be changed, but Touré pointed out that people are welcome to engage with their national ITU delegations if they want to ensure that their governments are adequately representing their citizens' interests at the table.
The Internet Society has responded by compiling information about how (or if) the different national delegations are engaging with other stakeholders in their countries. In late July, a gathering of African civil society groups published a joint declaration calling for -- among other things -- open and transparent Internet policymaking and multistakeholder Internet governance. Just this week, on Aug. 7, a European letter led by the Bulgarian delegation piled on, calling on governments "to overcome their desire for more control, and instead consider more sharing." The signatories also offered a list of things that concerned citizens can do to add their voices and actions to a growing global movement.
The movement on its own may not be enough, however. If multistakeholder Internet governance is to survive an endless series of challenges, its champions must commit to serving the interests and protecting the rights of all Internet users around the world, particularly those in developing countries where Internet use is growing fastest. This means that the United States and other Western governments, along with the world's most powerful companies, will not always be able to obtain the outcomes they want from global multistakeholder processes. Indeed, some libertarians argue that the U.S. Congress -- with legislative efforts like SOPA -- is arguably as much a threat to the Internet as the United Nations. The Obama administration demonstrated with ACTA -- negotiated in secret for four years until WikiLeaks published a draft in May 2008 -- that, when left to its own devices without sufficient public pressure, it too can be secretive and unaccountable.
Noncommercial participants in ICANN's policymaking structures have been complaining for years that Western companies hold too much power within that organization and that Western governments have worked to further national commercial interests at the expense of global Internet users. One example was a last-ditch effort in 2011 by U.S. and EU government representatives to stop the rollout of ICANN's expansion of new top-level domain names (the part of the domain name that comes after the "." like .com or .gov) because people might create new suffixes that could threaten the trademarks of Western companies. Yet the top-level domain program has received a great deal of support from governments, companies, and civil society groups in the developing world and in countries where languages use non-roman scripts like Chinese, Arabic, Persian, and Russian, to name just four. In fact, ICANN's long delay in expanding top-level domains was for years a huge source of discontent with ICANN among non-Western participants.