Less than nine months ago, the Tunisian government blocked Internet access to the opposition Progressive Democratic Party. Nevertheless, this week the United Nations (U.N.) hosted a summit in Tunisia to determine, among other things, how to maintain respect for online freedom of expression.
Apparently oblivious to the deep irony involved with hosting a conference on digital freedom in a country where such freedom is suppressed, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan describes the main goals of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) conference in lofty terms: "The main objective of the World Summit on the Information Society to be held this month in Tunisia is to ensure that poor countries get the full benefits that new information and communication technologies -- including the Internet -- can bring to economic and social development."
A major task of the WSIS is to insure that emerging nations get access to information technologies. But a more important matter is on its agenda: Who should govern the Internet?
At present, a semi-private entity called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), under minimal control of the U.S. Commerce Department, manages the assignment of Internet domain names and IP addresses, an important part of the Internet's ability to function. One of the proposals that was discussed ahead of the WSIS conference seeks to transfer that responsibility from ICANN to an organization operating under the aegis of the U.N. Such a transference has been struck down for now, reported the Washington Times yesterday, but "it's clear that the ultimate goal of the U.N. is still to wrest control of the Internet," John T. Doolittle, California Republican, warned after the November 15th conference.
The U.S. has always overseen key aspects of the Internet since its invention and with good reason, since the Internet was primarily developed in America. It was the U.S.-based National Science Foundation that constructed the first wide area network (WAN) using the now standard TCP/IP network protocol, or instruction set, which allows separate computers in different locations to communicate with each other. That innovation was a key factor in the development of the World Wide Web (WWW) which is accessed by all countries today.
Though there are numerous infrastructures that comprise the WWW and allow the degree of interoperability that its users enjoy, that interoperability relies heavily on the task of managing and assigning the aforementioned domain names and IP addresses.
In the early days of the Internet, domain name and IP address assignation was handled by the U.S. Department of Commerce through the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). In 1998, however, ICANN assumed that responsibility. Throughout those changes and developments, the WWW has worked remarkably well, expanding exponentially with an absolute minimum of U.S. Government interference. Yet, this week in Tunisia, one of the proposals on the table involves the creation of a "Global Internet Council" (GIC) anchored in the United Nations.
The U.N. working group offering that proposal includes, among other countries, Cuba, Iran and China. The group says that the GIC would consist of "members from governments with appropriate representation from each region [that] would take over the functions relating to international internet governance currently performed by [ICANN]."
It is worth noting that though the GIC is being touted as a way for all nations to have a say in the assignment of domain names and IP addresses, the membership of ICANN already consists of broad international representation.
Realistically speaking, were the GIC to become a reality, countries like Cuba, China and Iran, which already heavily regulate and censor their population's Internet access, would be in charge of regulating the flow of information on the WWW to all countries. And it is Cuba, China, Iran and other information-repressive nations that have been pressing hardest for the U.S. and ICANN to relinquish control of domain name administration. Their efforts have been aided by a reflexively anti-U.S. European Union (EU) endorsement of a second proposal similar to the GIC one.
The EU-endorsed proposal is based on a "multilateral arbitration" and "dispute resolution forum." It is interesting to note that since most European telecommunications companies are satisfied with the performance and reliability of the WWW under U.S. oversight of the domain name system, they strongly oppose the EU-sponsored proposal to shift control of that system away from the U.S.
Currently, the debate over who should control the name system essentially pits the loosely US-controlled ICANN against the rest of the world. On the one hand, the U.N. position is that Internet phenomena like spam, pornography, financial scams and cross-border gambling should be dealt with by a central authority since, by and large, ICANN doesn't effectively address these things. On the other hand, ICANN's defenders posit that those matters should be resolved by individual governments within their own borders.
Senator Norm Coleman (R- Minnesota) heads the Senate Subcommittee investigating aspects of the Oil-for-Food scandal. He knows a few things about the U.N.'s inability to resolve just about anything effectively or efficiently. Coleman has been vocal in opposing any attempt by the U.N. to wrest control of the domain name system from the US-based ICANN group presently controlling it.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, he categorized the WSIS in Tunisia as a "grave threat" to the Internet. "There is no rational justification for politicizing Internet governance within a U.N. framework. The chairman of the WSIS Internet Governance Subcommittee himself recently affirmed that the existing internet governance arrangements 'have worked effectively to make the internet the highly robust, dynamic and geographically diverse medium it is today, with the private sector taking the lead in day-to-day operations, and with innovation and value creation at the edges,'" says Coleman.
ICANN, under the loose guidance of the U.S. Government, has done an excellent job of administering the Internet domain name system. As a result, all nations have benefited from the power and reliability of the Internet. Why is the so-called "International Community" now calling for ICANN to relinquish its control? Why does it want to fix something that, for all practical purposes, isn't broken?
One of the reasons given by some of the countries gathering in Tunisia is that since ICANN controls domain names, the U.S. could decide to shut down the Internet access of countries that displease it. For instance, should the U.S. and Russia become at odds with each other, it would be technically possible for ICANN to shut down all Internet addresses ending in .ru, thereby preventing access to Russian Internet addresses with that suffix. That argument is specious however, since although the U.S. has extremely tense relations with Iran and North Korea, it has never blocked their domain names or otherwise denied their populations access to the WWW.
The clamor for U.N. control of the domain name system is more likely rooted in foreign opposition to so-called U.S. "unilateralism" and "hegemony" -- a direct result of foreign opposition to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Since that decision was made, baseless opposition to the U.S., regardless of consequence, has become fashionable in much of the world. In that context, given the choice of a rational decision that is perceived to be in favor of the US or an irrational one that favors the U.N., the latter is now almost always to be expected from those who govern across the Atlantic.
No doubt, those who attended the WSIS in Tunisia witnessed a showdown between those for and those against changing the way the domain name system is administered. But such a showdown risks overshadowing an equally, if not more, important aspect of Internet access in terms of the free flow of news and information -- control of the Internet Service Providers (ISP) that grant individual users access to the Internet.
Many of the countries pushing for U.N. governance of the domain name system, including China, Cuba and Iran, filter and tightly monitor their ISPs, thereby controlling what their populations can and cannot access on line. It is therefore unlikely that the topic of ISP control will get much attention at the WSIS. And given the fact that the country hosting the WSIS, Tunisia, also tightly controls Internet content through ISP filtering, it would be miraculous if the topic got any attention at all.
In the past, the U.N. has allowed notorious human rights violators like Libya and Zimbabwe to serve on its Commission on Human Rights. Now it is allowing information-repressive regimes like Cuba and Iran to influence the outcome of a conference on Internet governance and freedom. It also hosted the conference in a country where free speech is an oxymoron, proof positive that U.N. bureaucrats, and those who put stock in them over the U.S., must never be allowed to govern the World Wide Web.
Rocco DiPippo, a free-lance political writer, publishes The Autonomist blog and is a Frontpagemag.com columnist.
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