[AfrICANN-discuss] U.N. Delegates Debate Control Of Internet
annerachel at gmail.com
Sat Dec 18 17:21:24 SAST 2010
U.N. Delegates Debate Control Of Internet
by Tom Gjelten <http://www.npr.org/people/2100536/tom-gjelten>
December 17, 2010
Among the little-noticed debates at the United Nations this week was one
that focuses on a potentially explosive issue: the future of the Internet.
On one side are those countries favoring more governmental controls. On the
other are the advocates of Internet freedom.
The debate has its roots in the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society
(WSIS), a U.N.-organized conference that addressed the "digital divide"
between countries over their relative access to the Internet. One result of
the conference was a mandate that the U.N. should explore ways to
internationalize the governance of the Internet.
For all its power and worldwide reach, the Internet is still largely an
unregulated space. But many governments, especially in the developing world,
argue that it's time to strengthen international oversight, with
intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations taking a lead role.
At issue is the extent to which private industry, civil society groups, and
other nongovernmental actors should continue to play significant roles in
the management of the Internet. At this week's hearing, organized by U.N.
Department of Social and Economic Affairs, some countries, including China,
favored limiting the oversight role to governmental and intergovernmental
"The governments are located in the center of this process," argued Tang
Zicai, representing the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in
Beijing. "This process cannot be accomplished without the meaningful
participation of the governments."
The current organization of the Internet, however, leaves little room for
government control, and many civil society groups say it should stay that
"The Internet is a network of networks working cooperatively together,
designed to operate without centralized control or governance mechanisms,"
argued the Internet Society, a nonprofit international organization focusing
on Internet standards, education, and policy.
In a statement prepared for the United Nations debate, the organization said
the "intelligence" of the Internet is "predominantly at the edges, with the
users. ... This model has proven to be flexible, adaptable and responsive to
users' needs, and is itself the source of the tremendous innovation the
Internet has created."
But support for increased government regulation of the Internet is growing,
especially among the developing countries who constitute a majority in the
United Nations General Assembly. Several were outspoken in presentations
this week at the U.N. hearing.
"Developments have not been supportive of increasing the leverage of
developing countries in policy issues pertaining to the Internet," said
Mohammed Hussain Nejad, representing the government of Iran. "The few
developed countries are either monopolizing policymaking on such issues or
entering into exclusive treaties among themselves, while further
marginalizing other countries, mainly developing ones," he said.
For those governments who simply favor more control over the Internet and
for those who want to see the network reformed for the benefit of less
powerful countries, there is one obvious solution: the United Nations should
take more responsibility. Among those backing such a move are Brazil, India,
Saudi Arabia, and other emerging powers.
On the other side, in addition to civil society groups, are the United
States and its western allies.
"The worst case scenario would be the imposition of U.N. types of governance
over the Internet," says Philip Verveer, the Coordinator of International
Communication and Information Policy at the US State Department. "[It would]
inevitably bring with it tremendous slowness in terms of reaching critical
decisions, because you can't have decisions taken among nations on anything
that won't take a very long time. It would potentially [slow] changes in the
architecture of the Internet, the adoption of technology, or the commercial
arrangements that surround interconnection."
Of additional concern to U.N. critics is the prospect of governments pushing
for new international rules to limit the political impact of the Internet.
"[These governments] don't like the idea of the free flow of information,"
Verveer says, "and intergovernmental controls would be a way of controlling
the content that passes over the Internet by requiring, by treaty if you
will, other administrations to cooperate in terms of suppressing speech that
they didn't like."
The government of Mauritania, in its contribution to the U.N. debate,
proposed that "international policy in the field of Internet should urge
each country to ensure control of Internet content" in order to block the
dissemination of any information "not authorized by law and morality" in
some other country.
Such views, however, may reflect some naivete. The WikiLeaks episode showed
how hard it can be to keep content off the Internet. Upset as it was by the
disclosure of state secrets, the US government had no real way to keep users
from finding the WikiLeaks material.
Indeed, more broadly, the U.N. debate over the future of the Internet shows
that governments are still figuring out which Internet policies make sense
and which don't.
"We're getting an opportunity for governments to ask dumb questions," says
Gregory Francis, managing director of Access Partnership, a London-based
lobbying firm that follows global Internet regulation issues. "If Mauritania
asks Russia or France, 'Is this possible?' and the governments of those
countries reply, 'No, it ain't,' they'll probably pipe down and go away."
But the debate over the Internet's future promises only to grow. Diplomats
are already preparing for a World Conference on International
Telecommunications, due to be held in 2012 in Malaysia.
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