Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Threat to Free Speech on the Internet

For all its flaws, the Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for free speech and expression. Unfortunately, as Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky & Joseph Barillari recently noted for National Review Online, a number of authoritarian regimes are trying to change this by having the UN take over responsibility for cyberspace:

The Internet is decentralized by design, having grown from the U.S. government's efforts to build a computer network that could survive catastrophic failures. Some elements, however, must be centrally administered to guarantee the Internet's orderly operation. The U.N. has its sights set on the most important of these, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN, a nonprofit contractor for the U.S. Department of Commerce, ensures that top-level domain names (.com, .edu, .uk), specific domain names (,, and IP addresses (, the numeric address for, do not conflict. An Internet without ICANN would be like a telephone network in which everyone picked his own telephone number. ICANN delegates much of its work to a mix of regional organizations and commercial registries. This system has served the Internet well.

Nevertheless, a 2003 WSIS meeting asked U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to convene a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) to develop proposals to internationalize control of the Internet. Composed of representatives from the private sector, NGOs, and governments, including those of Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Iran, and a number of supranationally inclined European states, the 41-member body delivered its final report this July. WGIG's proposals include shifting control of ICANN to an "International Internet Council," entrusted with an additional murky mandate over Internet-related "international public policy."

At the forefront of these efforts is China, whose Leninist dictatorship has taken a pioneering role in creating a model of a censored Internet. Ramos-Mrosovsky and Barillari aptly summarize why Beijing and other dictatorial regimes would benefit from UN control over the web:

Only dictators, and, perhaps, the doctrinaire internationalists who so often abet them, stand to gain from placing the Internet under "international" control. If, for example, the U.N. were to control domain names, its component tyrannies would find it much easier to censor and repress. After all, "internet public policy" is subject to interpretation, and it is hard to imagine international bureaucrats resisting — as ICANN and the U.S. largely have — the temptation to politicize their task. At first, this could even seem reasonable: E.U. officials might seek to eliminate neo-Nazi domains. Inevitably, however, dictatorships would seek to extinguish undesirable foreign web content at the source. Given the U.N.'s penchant for condemning good causes, it is easy to imagine Tehran pushing to suppress "racist" (i.e. "Zionist") websites, or steady pressure from Beijing to eliminate Taiwan's ".tw" domain. (One China, one top-level domain.)

It is a less than auspicious sign that Tunisia, which is slated to host the UN's November 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), has itself just blocked access to a dissident web site. Fortunately, so far the US is holding firm against the UN proposal. The current arrangements regarding the Internet may not be perfect, but they are far preferable to the proposed alternative.


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