by Richard Lessner
Posted Aug 17, 2005
The United Nations apparently thinks it does so much so well, with efficiency and absence of corruption, that the international confabulation now believes it is time for it to take over control of the Internet.
If you haven’t already heard of this latest UN debacle, you will. The issue is rolling down hill and picking up momentum. It’s being propelled, as with so many UN initiatives, by anti-American grievances, envy and resentment . It all could come to a head in November in Tunis when the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) next meets. If you think your computer is slow now, just wait until a UN commission based in Geneva gets its bureaucratic clutches on the World Wide Web.
We have Bill Clinton and the inventor of the Internet himself, Al Gore, to thank for this mischief. It was Clinton-Gore who proposed the World Summit on the Information Society to address global issue surrounding the explosive growth in computer and telecommunication technology. In 2003, WSIS spawned WGIG, the Working Group on Internet Governance, to examine the “problems” surrounding the Internet. The 40-nation member WGIG produced a report in June that proposes four models for global Internet governance, three of which envision international government control through an UN-based commission. These prospects should send chills coursing through the Internet community’s collective circuitry.
This is a classic example of the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In fact, there are no significant “problems” with the current system of Internet governance. Following Al Gore’s invention of the Internet (well, actually the Defense Advanced Research Projects, DARPA, invented it), the United States wisely made the technology to link computers together worldwide available to the private sector. Entrepreneurs soon produced the Internet as we know it today. The Internet is managed, not “controlled,” by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a quasi-governmental non-profit corporation created by the U.S. Department of Commerce. ICANN keeps the Internet trains running on time, assigning web site names, managing routing, and generally keeping everything in good order and holding chaos at bay.
ICANN has done a superb job managing the Internet as a free, open, secure and accessible medium for all the people and nations on the planet. Today, more than one billion people have access to and use the Internet. Under the benevolent management of the United States the Internet has become a powerful engine for commerce and the movement of information and ideas across national and international borders. The Internet is birthing an information revolution potentially as powerful as the invention of the printing press. The explosive growth of the Internet is due precisely to the fact that it has been free of government control and has flourished in a private-sector, free-market environment.
But UN bureaucrats being who they are -- and petty tyrants, satraps, autocrats and dictators being who they are – the free-wheeling, uncontrolled nature of the Internet is something to be loathed. In the eyes of these sorts, freedom looks like chaos, hence the movement to deliver control of the Internet a UN commissariat.
Again, almost no one can point to technical problems with ICANN’s benign management of the Internet. The sole refrain that runs through the WGIG report in support of internationalized control is the notion that it is “unfair” that one nation (the U.S) should “control” such a global technology as the Internet. All nations have a stake in the Internet, it is asserted, and have an interest in controlling it.
It’s hardly mysterious why the “international community” wants to get its hands on the Internet. Although the WGIG report gives lip service to “freedom of expression” as one of the fundamental principles of Internet governance, few seriously believe that a nation such as Saudi Arabia, one of the 40 nation-members in WGIG, is interested in allowing unfettered freedom of expression on the Internet within its national borders. Authoritarian governments fear and despise the Internet. China reportedly keeps more than 40,000 computer geeks burrowing away full time to monitor blogs and web sites for dangerously subversive ideas. China pressures Internet providers into accepting censorship and government surveillance as the price of doing business.
Tyrants worldwide recognize the Internet as a medium for the free exchange of ideas and information and as a powerful agent of change. They’re seeking control of this technology to suppress dissent. Moreover, the WGIG report also envisions a tax scheme to fund Internet governance. Surely Third World kleptocrats are salivating at the looting potential of the Internet. Here’s a whole new opportunity for bribes, extortion, kickbacks, and payoffs to be exploited. In the aftermath of the oil-for-food scandal, handing control of the Internet to the UN would be an act of epic stupidity.
When the World Summit assembles again in Tunis this November, the WGIG report in all likelihood will be adopted. The next step will be the drafting of a treaty or convention to set up an international commission to take control of the Internet. Because only sovereign governments can be parties to treaties and conventions, any Internet governance pact by its nature would cede control to governments. The free market, private sector would be relegated to mere onlooker status by any treaty arrangement.
The Internet treaty is shaping up as a replay of the Kyoto protocol on climate change, the International Criminal Court, and the Law of the Sea Treaty – all aimed at weakening and restraining the United States. Once drafted and approved, a global treaty on Internet governance will be signed quickly by more than 100 Third World and developing nations, as well as most of the EU member states. Then the pressure on the U.S. to ratify the treaty will begin to increase. The UN’s reliable friends in the U.S. will push for America to get on board with the rest of the world and cease its unilateral arrogance and imperialistic control of the Internet. Jimmy Carter and Ted Turner will be activated. The New York Times will demand to know why the U.S. once again is standing alone against the collective will of the so-called international community.
Thankfully, the Bush administration opposes the WGIG schemes for the international control of the Internet. Even the State Department has been stalwart, making the case that the current regime of Internet governance under ICANN is working just fine and does not require UN tinkering. GOP Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who has led the charge on the oil-for-food scandal, also has been raising the alarm on the impending UN threat to the freedom of the Internet.
Government control of the Internet is inimical to its nature as a free, open, and accessible medium. No government bureaucracy, much less an elephantine international commission, can move at “net speed.” No collection of UN panjandrums could possibly keep pace with the accelerating rate of technological innovation and change. If anything can slow down the Net, then UN control would be it. This mischief needs to be stopped before it gains any more momentum. An Internet free of government control must be preserved and allowed to flourish. Toward that end, a coalition of tech industries and free-market advocates, the Global Internet Governance Alliance, has been set up to promote the benefits of a free Internet and to oppose the UN scheme to seize control. GIGAlliance will soon have a web site up and running – but for how long?
Mr. Lessner is a former editorial page editor and writer at the Arizona Republic and the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H. He formerly served as executive director of the American Conservative Union and now works for Capital City Partners, a Washington, D.C., public affairs consulting firm.