For years now, there has been a fight brewing over whether Internet governance should rest with the 16-year-old California-based nonprofit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or be shifted to a United Nations-affiliated body.
ICANN and the 150-year-old International Telecommunications Union, which has long acted as the traffic cop of global non-Internet telecommunications, might be headed to a crucial face-off next month. And so, the U.S. State Department, which wants ICANN to retain control of Internet governance, is making a bid to broaden the debate and engage an audience all over the world with a simple proclamation: "The Internet belongs to everyone."
The first step in that campaign is the two-minute animated video above.
What's really going on here? Well, the U.S. government is in a bit of a pickle. The country's traditional role guiding the Internet's operations and growth is being challenged, and disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance programs haven't helped. Proponents of the current structure have been able to stave off such proposals before, but this time things are more complicated as other countries and advocates coalesce their opposition to the current way of doing things.
Last September, for example, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said at the U.N. General Assembly that in the future, "Brazil will present proposals for the establishment of a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet and to ensure the effective protection of data that travels through the web."
What exactly Rousseff is referring to is an ongoing debate over how the Internet's standards and practices should be decided. It has long operated under a unique "multistakeholder model" in which governments, NGOs, academia, individuals and others all focused on consensus-driven decision-making, under the ICANN umbrella. But there's a push to expand the ITU's purview to include Internet governance -- which would make governments, not geeks, the chief stakeholders.
What's the worry? That those governments might have other interests than simply increasing users' access to the Internet, including having the ability to shut down their local Internet connections during times of upheaval. As the State Department campaign frames it, it's much like why people rose up against the Stop Online Piracy Act in the United States a few years ago: There will be new online gatekeepers determining what happens online. Only instead of ISPs and big entertainment companies, this time it will be, among others, Russia and China.
Last time the debate flared up, some of the Internet's biggest companies rode to the rescue of the multistakeholder model. Google, for example, made the case that "governments alone should not determine the future of the Internet." That rally by U.S.-grown Internet giants helped forestall a shift to the U.N. agency. But it didn't do much to challenge the perception that the Internet is unduly dominated by the United States.
Why the video now? The issue will likely come up again at the quadrennial ITU Plenipotentiary happening in late October in Busan, South Korea.
The United States has formally tried to get ahead of that vote. The State Department's coordinator for international communications and information policy, Daniel Sepulveda, gave a think tank talk in January, for example, saying that it was unfair to "conflate the issue of intelligence gathering with U.S. positions on Internet governance." But the department is now trying to identify and ignite the passions of those who might favor the multistakeholder model without really knowing it -- especially in those "global swing states," from Albania to Kenya to Uruguay, likely to determine the outcome of the debate.
Tweeted Macon Phillips, who directs public diplomacy for the State Department, "Strategic assumption of @KeeptheNetOpen [is] that nerds in every country care about [the open Internet]."
But how to go about rallying those people? The video is an attempt at a start.
The animation opens with the sort of happy, peppy music normally found in commercials for online-only banks or car insurance products: "Do-do, do-do, do-do-do-do-do-do." Begins a pleasant female voice: "The Internet. It has the potential to affect and improve every aspect of your life." It goes on. "But if the way that it's governed changes, your life will, too."
The background music becomes ominous as talk turns to the ITU debate. "Boom-wow-wow-wow-umm. Some people think that only government leaders should decide how the Internet is run." Then it's back to "do-do-do-do" and a final call to action: "You can do your part. Make sure people from your country are actively representing your interests in preserving a free and inclusive Internet. Because the Internet belongs to everyone; let's keep it that way."
There's no hiding who's behind it, as the video closes with the tag line, "Produced by the U.S. Department of State for everyone who cares about the future of an open Internet."
That video is here.