African governments are pushing for changes to the way the internet is run. They want to see the it become more development-oriented and less commercial, open to more languages, and run by an international group.
The Internet, developed as an instrument of US military defence, has long been controlled by the United States. But as the Internet evolves into a global commercial and information resource and a potential tool for development, a growing number of countries are demanding a stake in its running.
Only three of the 13 computers that are essential for the proper functioning of the internet are located outside the US (in Japan, Sweden and the UK) and the US government, which financed its development, only contracted out the services of administering the resource to a non-profit agency, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), in 1998.
Differences over the issue are set to become more pronounced as nations prepare for the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), scheduled to be held in Tunisia in November 2005. Last December, at the first WSIS, a conference called to seek ways of extending universal access to information, countries failed to break an impasse on how the Internet should be governed. They mandated UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to set up a working group on the matter, which is expected to present its findings in Tunisia.
Most of the disagreement centres on the role of the California-based ICANN. The agency is in charge of the Internet's infrastructure of domain name and address identifiers. In much the same way that telephone users require a system of numbers to place calls, the Internet relies on a system of names and identifiers to direct traffic. Each computer on the network is known by a unique set of numbers, its IP address. Because it would be difficult to remember these numbers, a 'domain name' such as 'panos.org.uk' is also used.
Two main issues confront ICANN today: one of equity and the other of legitimacy. Increasingly questions are being raised over how much control over the resources and functions essential for the operation of the Internet the agency should hold. Also, can the agency represent the broader interests of other nations, particularly those in Africa?
ICANN administers the Domain Name System (DNS) that is at the heart of the Internet. Most services, such as e-mail delivery, rely on it to work and whoever controls it determines global Internet policy.
ICANN sets the rules that members must abide by, to be part of the network. Companies and governments which run country domain names must agree to a non-negotiable fee and to use the agency's dispute resolution system in the event of disagreements. While some countries led by the US would like ICANN to continue to be "in charge" of the Internet, a growing number, especially in the developing world are demanding change. They believe that since the Internet is now a global facility, its management should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, involving governments, the private sector, civil society groups and international organizations.
According to South African President Thabo Mbeki if the Internet remains under the control of ICANN, "the world continues to be governed by California law". One of the harshest critics of ICANN, the South African government recently wrested legal control of its country domain (.za) from a local ICANN-appointed Internet pioneer, without seeking ICANN approval. The government says the new administration panel, appointed by the communications ministry, is more representative of the South African people.
In Africa, as is the case in other developing regions, some governments are increasingly dissatisfied with having to pay foreign domain registering companies, in scarce foreign currency, for the rights to register and operate their national domains. To them, national domains are national property, and rights over them should not be held by nationals of other countries.
Africa is the only continent without a regional ICANN representative to manage its domain name registration system, although there are plans for the non-profit African Network Information Center to take this over in December 2004. When this happens, Africa will have more control over its own domain names and the Internet traffic that uses them, and a greater say in the way the global Internet is run.
South Africa is among the countries leading the call for the formation of an intergovernmental agency within the United Nations to take over the functions of ICANN.
The proposed role of the agency would go beyond dealing solely with technical matters to broader issues such as content, and helping countries build their Internet structures and develop bandwidth (the rate at which information is transmitted over communication lines) which remains very low in Africa. An intergovernmental agency could also provide space for politically and economically weaker nations to be heard, by providing equal seats or votes to each nation represented.
The current debate around Internet governance provides an opportunity for developing countries to tackle the long-standing question of the "digital divide" – the gap between those with access to information communication technologies, such as computers, and those without. In sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), there are an estimated 1.5-2.5 million Internet users, which translates to about one in every 250-400 people. In the rest of the world, 1 in 15 people have access.
Africans have long been calling for an international strategy to redress this and other information technology questions such as lack of content. They produce very little of the information materials available on the Internet. For the medium to be useful to Africans, they need to generate material relevant to each other, produced from their own environments and in their languages. A step in this direction would be for Africans to have a stake in the way the medium is run.
The new agency could also influence how the domain name space on the Internet is structured. On the Internet, web sites are placed in a structural order, with some occupying the upper levels of the network and others lower. This is important because the way the Internet is structured determines how the medium is used. If, for instance, it emphasizes commercial rather than development-oriented use, then the Internet would be biased in this regard.
Until now, ICANN has been dominated by commercial interests and commercial sites form the majority of Internet websites. By 1998, out of the 36 million computer hosts on the Internet, 11 million were commercial, 6 million general and 4 million educational sites. Because commerce thrives on homogeneity, English has become the language of the Internet. But if the Internet were more development-oriented, it could, for instance provide space for the 5,000 or so existing languages in the world.
While governments are increasingly becoming involved, African civil society groups also need to play an active role in influencing how the governance issue evolves. Would they want a quasi-government institution to be in charge of what has largely been a decentralised, "independent" medium? How can they ensure that authoritarian governments, many already censoring their own Internet traffic, do not impose such controls internationally?
It is important for Africans to influence the debate and its outcome. To be able to do this, they need to be more involved. Many people on the continent have not even heard of ICANN and therefore do not participate in public engagements concerning the agency. They also do not take part in the running of ICANN, with little representation in the various organs of the agency. Given the infrastructure and cost constraints, the challenge in the long run is how meaningfully and effectively Africans can shape, as well as use, this valuable development tool.
Gumisai Mutume is a Zimbabwean who writes for the New York-based United Nations publication Africa Renewal.