Speech

Ed Vaizey speech at the ICANN 50 opening ceremony

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Communication Minister's speech on internet governance at the opening of the 50th ICANN conference

Ed Vaizey

Good morning everyone. Welcome to the UK, welcome to London and welcome ICANN 50.

It’s hard to believe that in the 15 years since ICANN first met in Singapore, this event has never taken place in the UK. Britain is a world leader in digital technology. The internet economy is already responsible for more than eight per cent of UK GDP – that’s a greater share than in any other G20 country.

Much of this success is down to the innovative spirit of British technology pioneers. But Government has also played its part. We’re on track to deliver superfast broadband to 95 per cent of the country by 2017, giving hi-tech and traditional businesses the infrastructure they need to access global markets. We’ve created tax relief of up to 225 per cent for research and development.

The government is leading by example – we’re aiming to make all government services digital by default. You can already go online to apply for everything from a driving licence to permission for burial at sea!

It all helps to explain why the UK is the highest-ranked G20 country in the Global Innovation Index.

But it’s not the only reason why it’s fitting that ICANN’s 50th meeting is taking place in London. About 10 miles to the South West of where we are today lies the childhood home of Tim Berners Lee, the Great British brain behind the creation, a quarter of a century ago, of the world wide web.

Head about 10 miles to East and you’ll find the Olympic Stadium, where Sir Tim memorably tweeted to the world during the 2012 Opening Ceremony. His message – “This is for everyone” – was a fitting description not just of the Games, but also of the web and the internet. And, just as importantly for today’s discussion, for how the UK believes the internet should be governed.

The system of governance we have in place now has by any measure been successful in creating the opportunity for economic growth and intellectual freedom. That includes ICANN of course in the performance of its role in coordinating and developing the domain name system so that it serves the global community. The current review of ICANN accountability is an important step therefore.

And that links to the IANA function which has performed so well under the existing arrangements under contract to the US government that the average Internet user might well wonder what we are talking about. We often talk about the “stewardship” of the IANA function, and I always think it’s the perfect way of describing the role. It’s not about regulation or ownership. It’s not about one country controlling the internet or dictating its terms. It’s about nurturing it, supporting it, creating the environment in which it can develop and grow so that it can safely be handed on to the next generation.

But the internet is constantly evolving and the way it is stewarded has to evolve too. That’s why the UK government strongly supports the moves by the US to “let go” of the IANA function. It’s a huge step forward in making this global resource a truly global enterprise. And it’s a move that has a symbolic mirror in the very make-up of ICANN, which has shifted from being a US-based and US-dominated organisation to one that is seen as much more international.

Of course, with such a vital role to play, it’s absolutely imperative that the alternative model we move to is maintains the security, stability and resilience that underpins the global domain name system. That it’s capable not just of doing the job as well as the old way, but of doing it better. And, above all, that it’s capable of adapting and coping with the next wave of internet-enabled devices, the so-called internet of things. That is why as we engage with this final phase of privatisation of the domain name system, we must be cautious and not rush to change the current arrangements.

This is only going to happen if the system continues to evolve and develop organically with the full involvement and input of all interested parties worldwide. And that can only happen if the act of stewardship continues to be carried out in a collaborative, bottom-up way. In a spirit of global co-operation rather than state-centred regulation.

Some say this can’t work, that such a monumental task can only be undertaken at a governmental or supranational level. But look at how well the ICANN model has worked so far. In less than 20 years the internet has revolutionised the way the world works, talks and studies. And this explosive growth wasn’t managed by governments, it was driven by you.

Just look at the principles that were agreed at the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on The Future of Internet Governance – NETMundial. They weren’t created by politicians, or by the UN or by anonymous men in shadowy rooms. They were created in the open by the community that supports and curates the internet, the people without whom life online would be simply impossible. The people who have the best possible grasp of both the challenges facing the internet and the means required to tackle them. Or to put it another way: the people in this room.

The principles developed at NETMundial are as robust as they are simple. Internet governance should be built on a fully inclusive, multi-stakeholder process, ensuring the meaningful and accountable participation of everyone involved. Decisions should be made in a bottom-up, open, participative, consensus-driven way. There should be a suitable level of accountability, with mechanisms for checks and balances as well as for review and redress. Anyone affected by an internet governance process should be able to participate in that process.

I’m proud to say that the UK government wholeheartedly supports these principles as a basis for the global internet governance framework.

Again, I know that some don’t share this view. But what is the alternative? Top-down, centralised decision-making. A bureaucratic world-wide web of red tape. The internet being run not by the people who make it work on a daily basis but by horse-trading politicians behind closed doors.

Just imagine an internet that relied on governments agreeing on things! Internet governance has to match the rapid pace of change experienced by the internet itself. But let’s face it, “Rapid change” and “inter-governmental agreement” are not concepts that generally go well together.

That is why I was so keen to host a high-level meeting of governments here today. We are not here to make decisions on your behalf. We are here to talk about the ideas you have developed. We are here to learn more about ICANN, and for you to learn more about us.

So governments have a role in internet governance, just as the technical, civil and academic communities do. And we also have responsibilities.

Governments have to act proportionately in cyberspace, empowering users of the internet by promoting and safeguarding freedom of expression, cultural diversity, gender equality, information, education and skills.

We have to ensure that domestic legal frameworks are fair and consistent by ensuring transparency of legal process and accountability for government decisions and that the law applies equally online as it does offline. They have to provide equitable civil processes for dispute resolution so that citizens can enjoy due legal process and can enforce their rights.

And as we’ve seen in the UK, governments have to establish and promote a robust global internet infrastructure that provides equitable access for all, promotes economic development and job creation, and allows more people to enjoy a better quality of life.

What governments shouldn’t be doing is attempting to manage how the internet is run. As Fadi Chehade has said, “The Internet is the Greatest Public Gift”. It doesn’t belong to anyone, it isn’t controlled by anyone. The internet itself has endured precisely because it is bigger than any one country.

ICANN 50 is taking place at a critical moment in discussions about the future course of internet governance. I have already referred to NETmundial meeting in Sao Paulo – the key outcomes of which will be discussed at this meeting.

The recommendations for strengthening the global Internet Governance Forum should feed directly into the 9th IGF in Istanbul in September. Following closely on from the IGF, the International Telecommunication Union – the ITU – will have the opportunity to consider its role in standards and capacity building at the Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan, South Korea, in October and November.

All these processes and linkages are against the backdrop of the WSIS+10 review by the UN General Assembly. The outcomes of the 2005 Tunis summit, which embedded the multi-stakeholder approach in the Internet governance eco-system, have been implemented very well. You only need to look at the highly detailed evaluations produced by UNESCO last year and the recent ITU High Level Event to see that.

So it makes sense for next year’s final stage of the UN review process to also be undertaken with the active participation of representatives from all over the world.

We must explore in these fora how we can encourage alliances and active collaboration among stakeholder constituencies and sources of expertise.

A key objective must be to strengthen existing mechanisms and processes, such as the Internet Governance Forum, which we in the UK have always supported.

I hope that, in future, we will see an IGF whose outcomes are more immediate, visible and tangible, and that there will be stronger links between the main IGF and its many regional and national multi-stakeholder IGFs and with other entities in the Internet eco-system.

Achieving this will help with what has to be our number one goal – bringing the next billion people from developing countries into the global digital economy, with all the social and economic benefits that entails.

Earlier this year the World Wide Web celebrated its 25th birthday, 25 years of unparalleled expansion, economic growth and social good. ICANN is key to ensuring that this success continues for the next 25 years.

Sir Tim Berners Lee said “this is for everyone”. It’s up to us to make sure it stays that way.

Published 23 June 2014