A Davos initiative on Internet Governance: is WCIT coming to an end?, by Fabrizio Cugia di Sant’Orsola (CC&A)

‘A Davos initiative on Internet Governance: is WCIT coming to an end?’, by Fabrizio Cugia di Sant’Orsola, partner with CC&A.

In Davos, during the World Economic Forum, the technology participants set up an independent new Commission named Global Commission on Internet Governance, chaired by Mr. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Scope of the initiative is to produce a comprehensive stand on the future of multi-stakeholder Internet governance, something which brings to mind the clash occurred during the “Dubai 2012” World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) round.

The Davos initiative seems in fact in itself a statement of principle, as it clearly takes a stand in favor of a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance.

Yet the topic is far from being peacefully accepted in the international arena. As clarified during the WCIT rounds, Internet governance is a planetary issue, affecting also crucial national interests such as economic protection and development and freedom of expression. During the last two WCIT plenipotentiary rounds (Dubai, then followed by Geneva 2013), the debate heated much on how Internet governance should be structured, and delegations from emerging economies have voted for ensuring a top-down approach, for instance with regards to ensuring standards for deep packet inspection (DPI), a circumstance which has drawn much criticism from civil liberties groups. The failure to reach a common position during such WCIT rounds (the clash being between “free internet models” based on multi-stakeholder participation vs. top-down approaches, where governments –also via NRAs- are ensured a decisive role on tasks such as censorship, transmission control and/or freedom to operate, upload or downlink content) has created an international standstill, still pending today.

All this appears to have paved the way to the initiative by the Davos think-tanks (in a strange parallel with the spontaneous “occupy Wall Street” movement, in a certain fashion). Undoubtedly, the recent NSA scandal has much to do with the increased fear by the Davos members on the issues of net freedom, net security and net governance. The general perception may also be that Snowden’s revelations may not be more than the tip of the iceberg, and that, unless somebody stands out and takes a clear-cut position, in the near future no terminal equipment around the globe will ever be interception-free, notwithstanding all broad liberty propositions.

Probably the Davos initiative will serve to identify a new speaker in the international arena, and, why not, ensure a possible future bi-partisan approach capable of addressing the number of topics related to the Internet governance problem. There is a growing international consensus that may point also to a possible new understanding of regulations and norms in the communications field, including also a new direction to give to the same WCIT.

On a parallel basis, the Davos Committee could also assist in avoiding a possible “balkanization” of a number of Internet-related topics still to be addressed and solved: starting from privacy, consent, right to oblivion, big data and trans-border access and storage of data.

Surveillance and censorship over the Net, as well as interception and in general the use of data and retrieval of information on data search engines, is one of the fundamental topics related to Internet governance. With regards to the case of DPI, we must remember that this is a form of network packet filtering able to examines packets and determine whether they should be allowed to pass or not over the net, according to criteria such as the contents of the content of the packet’s data or its header. DPI may inevitably encourage surveillance as well as more commercially oriented uses such as service differentiation, something which is related to net neutrality principles.

DPI has yet been object of a specific ITU general Recommendation of some time ago (T Y.2770), a small masterpiece of compromise. Such Recommendation specifies the requirements for deep packet inspection (DPI) in next generation networks (NGNs), and primarily addresses aspects such as application identification, flow identification, inspected traffic types, signature management, reporting to the network management system (NMS) and interaction with the policy decision functional entity. Although aimed at the NGN, the requirements may be applicable to other types of networks, and during the WCIT Dubai round delegations from Brazil and Iran, among others, have put pressure on ensuring a “local” gate-holder role to national authorities. The amendment was not voted by the majority of all members, but the argument is still pending. It may appear a small step, but as Armstrong would say it, it is nonetheless a giant leap in the international appraisal of what Internet is to become.

The protection of freedoms is only one part of the cake, naturally, and nobody seems to disregard the role of national governments or independent NRAs in ensuring true competition, relevant market definition or protection of national interests. Yet to which level should “national” interference be stabilized and accepted is another point, i.e. the vexatious question. We will see if the Davos think-tanks may succeed in such attempt.