ICANN Can Help China Secure Cyberspace

Managing Director of Access Partnership, Gregory Francis, on China's approach to regulation and ICANN.

Before the righteous too much deride the “International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace” emanating from China’s cooperative one-party state, consider what progress it represents: a policy document that begins with principles, speaks often of cooperation, and clearly details the bilateral and multilateral approaches the country intends. By any measure, this is good practice from a keystone of the international system. And it offers a gift to those who would wish the Internet to be governed otherwise.

The Principle of Alarmism

The worst news always grabs the headlines, and China’s strategy has already elicited some lamentations about the end being near. There are certainly some frothy propositions in the Chinese policy: that the UN “establish basic principles for states and other actors to regulate their behaviour…” (all the world’s a stage), matter-of-fact if indiscriminate prevention of “terrorists from using the Internet to spread extremist ideology” (who are you labelling a terrorist?) and even some alarmingly anarchic calls for “all-dimensional and multi-tiered governance” that echo noisy Red Guards on the trail of the Four Olds. But China’s Strategy should not be confused with a forecast, and in publishing it openly rather than pursuing it by stealth the Chinese have given the multistakeholder community a basis from which to negotiate.

When in Difficult Country, Do Not Encamp

The solution to defending the multistakeholder model is clearly not to close ranks and defend the status quo. The Strategy foretells action along too many axes of influence for such a defensive posture to succeed. But it also suggests some very clear paths that, with a little adjustment, should be able to galvanize the multistakeholder community. An inexhaustive set of points of this stripe include:

(1) the UN playing a leading role in coordinating positions of various parties and building international consensus, (2) Enhanced… cooperation among all stakeholders including governments, international organizations, Internet companies, technological communities, non-governmental institutions and citizens (3) establish[ing] basic principles for states… to regulate their behaviour… in cyberspace, and (4) institutional reform of the [IGF] to enable it to play a greater role in Internet governance, strengthen its decision making capacity, secure steady funding…

These are not so much the cymbal cracks announcing Armageddon but policies that, one way or another, have been either embraced or been at the back of the multistakeholder community’s mind for some time. And they provide wide and fertile common ground. The task at hand is, therefore, to charge at the Chinese position and, using their clear interest, energy and funding, to drive adjustments that make sense, and to negotiate, using all those many voices the Chinese seek to engage, the worst elements of their Strategy into the ground. One immediate risk is the ever-plodding pace at which governments respond — especially those whose senior officials remain as yet largely unidentified — and the omni-focussed (if right-thinking) reaction of industry, civil society, and pre-existing international organizations such as ICANN.


But where governments may sometimes be plodding, the rest can be more nimble. ICANN 58 will offer a forum of Scandinavian rationality for discussion around how to respond to the Chinese Strategy, and how ICANN, its principal subject, can be further strengthened and still more convincingly transmogrified into the international organization of which the current incarnation is perhaps only Version 2. For the many participants, weary as they might be from these bruising years just past, and deservedly self-congratulatory over a (still!) smooth IANA transition, there can be no rest. China has laid out some clear ideas, and the unruly ICANN community will need to agree on some concrete responses if they are to keep their party going.

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