In a recent meeting of the Working Group on Internet Governance in Geneva harsh words were exchanged between representatives of the US government and representatives of the UK and other European countries over the issue of who controls or should control the internet.
The internet originated in networks established by private and public institutions in the United States and eventually went global, with the regulation of the basic infrastructure remaining in the hands of US-based groups like ICANN.
At this meeting in Geneva there were objections to US control over what is now an international institution of great importance to many nations, some of which literally live or die by internet commerce The predominant opinion seemed to be that the UN should take control of the internet away from America, whether we created it or not.
The UN is all for this idea. Coming up next month is the World Summit on the Information Society – a UN group promoting their Orwellian idea of civil society through the medium of the internet – where they intend to begin to implement a plan put together in 2003 to transfer the internet to the control of a United Nations body which will be answerable only to the bureaucrats of the UN who represent a diverse group of nations, many of them openly hostile to individual liberty, free speech and the United States.
At the Global Forum on Internet Governance UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced that “The world has a common interest in ensuring the security and dependability of this new medium. The medium must be made accessible and responsive to the needs of all the world’s people.” Which I imagine sounds great to a lot of people, but raises the issues of whose security interests the UN is likely to look out for, and how far the UN would go in sacrificing the freedoms we now enjoy on the internet to serve the needs of member countries for whom free speech and privacy are very low priorities. In their hands the internet could easily be turned from a medium for the free exchange of ideas to a tool through which a global state monitors and restricts the business and private activities of individuals all over the world.
In the Plan of Action issued at the last meeting of the WSIS, they listed 10 goals, which included a single international database of user information and detailed monitoring of internet usage in libraries, schools, univerrities, museums, hospitals and just about everywhere else. They would know what you are doing, where you are doing it, and the security of that information would only be as viable as the good will and competence of the UN, qualities which they are not generally known for. The plan also proposes adapting “all primary and secondary school curricula to meet the challenges of the Information Society,” essentially putting the UN and its agenda and curriculum in every classroom in the world. The Plan of Action is a frighteningly intrusive and comprehensive document, unrealistically ambitious, and promising a huge bureaucracy interfering in every aspect of the internet.
In the past UN groups have expressed a great deal of interest in controlling the internet, especially in the are of limiting free speech. The UN High Commissionar for Human Rights has proposed regulating hate speech and “screening racist propaganda.” The International Telecommunications Union has proposed sweeping regulation of internet practices and conduct. A number of influential UN member nations have draconian internet regulations, ranging from France’s hypersensitivity to certain types of internet behavior and commerce to Iran’s practice of throwing bloggers in jail to China’s total isolation of its own network and extreme limitations on free speech.
In a sensible world the Internet ought to be a way for the freedom and opportunity of the United States to penetrate into the restricted societies of the world, but under the control of the UN it’s far more likely that the extremism and intolerance would become the operating standards of the internet and there would be a serious effort to impose them on American users. With almost 200 member nations, all with different rules on internet usage, the bureaucratic tendancy would probably be towards greater restriction to placate extremists, rather than the freedoms we currently enjoy.
Then there’s the issue of UN inefficiency. The technology of the internet changes rapidly and many experts have serious doubts of the ability of a UN bureaucracy to keep abrest of developments and respond effectively to changing needs and priorities. Under the UN the internet might well fragment and function far less effectively than it currently does.
Finally there’s the inevitable question of internet business and taxation. So far the US has held firm in keeping internet business free from excessive taxation and regulation, and this has led to substantial economic growth both here and overseas. But the UN is always hungry for revenue, and looking for ways to develop income independent of the largesse of major nations like the US. It seems quite likely that under UN control the internet could become a cash cow which they would milk to the detriment of businesses and individuals who depend on it for their livelihood.
When the WSIS meets next month in Tunisia – itself a nation which restricts internet freedom – there’s likely to be quite a struggle. The US Department of Commerce has stated their definitive intent to protect American interests and keep the internet just as it is, and the anti-American factions which have a strong voice in the UN are determined to wrest control away from the people who have built, maintained and grown the system over the years. The bizarre thing is that no one seems to really find fault with the way that the internet is being run, they just all think they could somehow do it better, or more equitably or maybe they all just want a piece of the pie.
The question I have to ask is why we should screw with something that works? Since its inception the US has maintained a perfect hands-off policy and allowed the internet to grow and develop without substantial restrictions, and that has benefited everyone in the world who uses the net. What on earth makes anyone honestly believe that the UN – with too many bureaucrats and too many agendas – could possibly do any better? If you’re reading this now, you’re doing it on a system that works. Why roll the dice?