November II 2007

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris
Editor-In-Chief
Connect-World

Governing the Internet, alphabet soup and irrational enthusiasm

The Internet Governance Forum, the IGF, established during the 2005 World Summit on the Internet Society (WSIS) in Tunis, had its second general meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, November 12-15, 2007. More than 1200 people from around the world – legislators and lords, leading businesses and NGOs, ministers and regulators, technicians and philosophers, the Internet’s founders and its developers, experts in cyber crime and others that use ICTs to help people – gathered to discuss how the Internet could better contribute to the development goals set-forth during the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

There were some frightening moments for the acronym and abbreviation challenged among us – I include myself – lost in the midst of a letter blizzard. Half of the acronyms began with the letter ‘I’ – IP, IPRs, IPv4, IPv6, ICANN, IANA, IETF, IGF, IGOs, IXPs, but there was a liberal sprinkling of other letters – RIRs, DRM, APC, ccTLD, DOI, F/OSS, NAP, NAT, NRO, TLD, WITSA… The list goes on forever – look them up if you like. The substance came through, but simultaneous acronym translation would have helped.

The panels were interesting – at times excellent, but somewhat predictable. Debate, given the number of people involved was limited. The moderators did a good job, but I often wished for a gadfly – an ‘im-moderator’ as a friend calls them – to stir things up a bit.

There was a cast of truly high-level keynoters and panel members, but the debate wherever you stopped in the corridors was often better and more interesting.

The discussions were organised around five main themes: Critical Internet Resources; Access; Diversity; Openness; and Security.

Although much of the discussion about critical Internet resources centred around the availability of names and numbers, the discussions were much broader and included questions of infrastructure standards, interconnection, training of human resources and a great number of somewhat esoteric technical resource issues. Since the IGF is a UN initiative it is no surprise that political and governmental issues often surfaced and at times predominated.

A contentious issue, a recurring debate, not only with regard to the resources issue, but somehow woven into every theme, was the question of possible US Government interference with the Internet. The WSIS in Tunis established the IGF, in part, as a way to find answers to questions such as these. Although some militated strongly for the elimination of US government influence upon Internet governance, many others, a majority it seemed, felt that the Internet was doing well – that there was little evidence of undue influence. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, was a phrase heard a number of times in the hallways and, at least once, on stage. Nevertheless, few objected to the idea of a new, truly multi-stakeholder, wholly non-governmental, approach to governing the Internet and its resources.

Although the Internet has seen phenomenal growth – more than one billion people now have access to it – more than five billion people do not yet have access to this vital tool for economic, social and personal development. It takes more than just stringing wires or setting up WiFi hotspots to provide effective access. The access problem is complicated. Investors are needed, of course, to build the infrastructure, but many countries lack the sort of stable legal and regulatory structure that guarantees investors a reasonable level of safety.

‘Access to Access’ was a concept debated in the hallways. Universal access programmes might, for example, build backbones and local access networks, but capacity building for the basic skills needed to use the technology, to understand and use the information on the Net, is essential to bridge the digital divide.

Indeed, I asked Vint Cerf the Internet’s co-inventor – Bob Kahn, the other co-inventor was there as well – if the IGF could accomplish only one thing, what would it be. He first spoke of the need to move ahead with IPv6, but quickly reflected, and shifted to the need to deal with “capacity building in terms of access”. He went on to explain that this needs to be done on a country-by-country and region-by-region basis if we are to meet the Millenium Development Goal of capacity building, if we are to successfully include the world’s remaining 5.5 billion people.

Returning to the overriding technical and practical issue Mr Cerf was equally concerned by the need to deal with the limited number of IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) numbers remaining for distribution. The last address blocks will be distributed within the next two years or so. Although it will take another few years to exhaust these numbers, and many little-used blocks might be traded and re-used to provide address for a bit longer, we need a definitive solution. According to Vint Cerf, we need to push the Internet Service Providers to move to IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6), which provides a vastly greater number of addresses, and hook all the IPv6 using ISPs together.

Peter Dengate Thrush, the new Chairman of the Board of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (he recently took over as Chairmen from Vint Cerf) and Paul Wilson, the Director General of APNIC, the RIR or Regional Internet Registry that allocates IP and AS numbers in the Asia Pacific region, echoed Vint Cerf’s concern about the predictable exhaustion of Internet address stocks. All are quite concerned by the sluggish progress of IPv6, and the lack of movement within the ISP community to upgrade to IPv6 and to effectively interconnect. It is a complex issue that urgently needs more attention than it has been getting.

Today, Internet users that do not read or write in English and cannot understand the Latin alphabet are effectively excluded from most of the content on the Web. A conference workshop concentrated upon the interoperability of multilingual Internet directories and the use of the semantic web to resolve multilingual interoperability. The diversity of languages and needs of potential Internet users was much discussed. A great deal of progress is being made towards the adoption of International Domain Names that will facilitate the use of the Internet by non-English speakers and those who do not use the Latin alphabet.

The need to maintain openness of the Internet is evident. Free, open, access by everyone has long been one of the Internet’s primary characteristics. The IGF had a good number of sessions where ‘openness’ was discussed in terms of government censorship and human rights, but since so many sessions were concurrent, I could only attend a few. I was somewhat disappointed, although not surprised, when the few sessions I managed to check upon seemed more devoted to politically correct platitudes than effective measures.

The Internet security issue, in addition to all the expected cybercrime, terrorism, personal data protection questions generated a quite a bit of heated, passionate, discussion about the protection of children against sexual attacks and exploitation over the Internet. A number of NGOs dedicated to the Issue were there and The Council of Europe’s Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse drew quite a bit of interest. This issue became one of the highest priorities of the Rio de Janeiro IGF meeting.

Despite the real dedication of so many to the pressing human issues such as access and child abuse, I suspect the Internet issue that will truly mobilise the world within the next few years will be capacity. For most, the wallet, the most sensitive organ of the human body, speaks more loudly than the heart. Without major investments to build capacity, the growing need for capacity to handle the deluge of video content, YouTube for example, will overload the Web within the next two years or so. Nemertes Research Group calculates the cost at US$137 billion. This, and substantial investments in equipment and systems for IPv6, will fuel a great deal of Y2K-type irrational – and rational – exuberance in the market for years to come.

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Our next Connect-World: Global issue will be published later this month. The issue will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: International CES (7-10 January 2008, Las Vegas), CTIA Wireless 2008 (April 1-3, 2008, Las Vegas), and National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) (April 11-17, 2008, Las Vegas).

The theme of this issue of Connect-World Global Visionaries will be: The world’s on a string – using ICT to tie it together

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are powerful tools, they are changing the way we work and the way we play. The global economy and the lives of many people have changed dramatically as a result of ICTs, and there is a broad consensus – almost faith – in the ability of ICT to solve many, if not all of the world’s problems. The United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) concentrated upon the use of ICTs to create an information society and move forward to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Not a day passes without some new notion about how ICT will create a better world.

What is lacking in much of this talk is a hardheaded notion of some of the practical steps we must take to actually have some impact upon the major challenges that humanity faces.

We have all heard the old saying, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. I suspect mankind’s journey to solve the major global challenges needs thousands, if not millions, of small, practical, steps. I have heard all my life – my father repeated this frequently – that, ‘every complex problem has a simple answer, but it is probably wrong!’ Complex problems need many simple answers. What is yours? What are some of the simple things, the first steps, we might take using ICTs to help deal with major global challenges, such as global warming, poverty, health, education, wars…?

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One Response to November II 2007

  1. Perhaps there is still an opportunity to invest more effort in uncovering creative ways to relate telecom and ICT infrastructure to benefit the non-technical people within our communities.

    Let’s acknowledge that broadband networks are the means to an end objective; they’re not the essential aim or the ambition that drives people who seek their inherent benefit. Somehow this perspective tends to get lost in the technical debate around “bigger bandwidth.”

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