Governing the Internet
Governing the Internet

Miriam Sapiro was an adviser to President Clinton and is now an international consultant. She analyzes the international body that regulates the Internet.
The international body that regulates critical components of the Internet met for the first time in China. The Shanghai meeting offered a historic opportunity to resolve questions surrounding international governance of the Internet and to focus attention on the tight controls China still exercises over the Internet within its borders.

Developing an effective regime for governing a global resource like the Internet has been difficult. There is no consensus on the proper role of governments, the private sector, or the public in managing a phenomenon that has the potential for tremendous power. But there is general agreement on the need for centralized coordination of key functions.

This consensus led to a bold experiment called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is a private-sector-led, nonprofit charged with internationalizing and privatizing control of functions exercised by the United States government. Its job is to coordinate the numerous policy and technical issues that, for example, enable us to look on the Web for the United Nations under "" rather than "" Unlike other international governing bodies, it has sought public input in decision-making.

While ICANN is barely visible to most Internet users, its failure would have serious repercussions, putting the security of the Internet in jeopardy. Sending e-mails, finding Web sites and transacting business would become extremely cumbersome. The worldwide Web that governments, economies, industries and people everywhere have come to depend upon would become chaotic.

ICANN's record so far has been mixed. It has replaced a U.S. Government-sanctioned monopoly with more competition, and set international standards for domain-name dispute resolution. It has failed, however, to gain strong support from local Internet communities around the world and from most governments, and risks becoming a casualty of its own cumbersome processes.

Most people would prefer to see ICANN fixed rather than replaced or have its responsibilities shifted to governments. An evolution has been ongoing ever since its leadership launched a reform campaign last spring, culminating in the adoption of new operating rules by its board of directors at the Shanghai meeting. There are now procedures and deadlines for action on policy debates.

Government representatives have more say in public policy matters, but no veto. And because of concerns about the integrity of holding global, public elections, a nominating committee will select a majority of the board.

While ICANN must become more effective to gain legitimacy, it is equally important that the organization remain open and build consensus. Opportunities for public input must continue to be the norm, with the board resisting the temptation to make more decisions in private. The decision-making process should remain bottom-up, rather than top-down, with an agreed role for all groups that are willing to work with ICANN. The board should approve initial funding for new structures designed to encourage global grassroots participation and, perhaps one day, direct voting.

It is fitting that the ICANN meeting was held in China, now in the throes of an Internet evolution, with a struggle under way between Chinese government forces that recognize the value of the Internet to China's economic and intellectual development, and those that fear its freewheeling nature.

China has used filters to block Google and other search engines that can access political information. More recently, it tightened controls on Internet cafes, which require government checks and licenses to operate.

But China has also reopened access to Western media portals like And the Chinese government's eagerness to host the ICANN meeting is an encouraging step, although more could have been done to encourage local participation. It is unrealistic to expect that progress will be quick or smooth anytime soon in Beijing. But the time is ripe for China to begin serious internal deliberations. The newly established State Council Informatization Office is well placed to begin this discussion and explain why the economic advantages of an open, accessible Internet outweigh the political risks.

How well ICANN and China meet their respective challenges will influence the pace of Internet development for years. All Internet users have a stake in the success of ICANN and in the triumph of the basic principles that have made the Internet a liberating force. It would be ironic if the governance discussions held in Shanghai ultimately led ICANN to become a more closed organization, just as the world urges China to open its gateways.


Miriam Sapiro, former special assistant to President Clinton at the National Security Council, is the founder of Summit Strategies International in Washington, D.C., advising on Internet policy and telecommunications issues.

Reprinted from The National Law Journal. Copyright © 2002 NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. Please review our terms and conditions of use.