Africa calls for more cyber-rights



03/08/2004
Africa Calls For More Cyber-Rights
By Gumisai Mutume

PANOS FEATURES  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./PANOS FEATURES

About the author: Gumisai Mutume is a Zimbabwean who writes for the New
York-based United Nations publication Africa Renewal.

This feature is published by Panos Features and can be reproduced free of
charge. Please credit the author and Panos Features and send a copy to
MAC, Panos Institute, 9 White Lion St, London N1 9PD, UK. Email:
media@panoslondon.org.uk


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