The internet, long seen as a neutral realm free of government interference, is now hot political property. Not surprisingly, therefore, both the European Union and the United Nations are now trying to grab control of the internet. This has major consequences for business and for individuals.
Since 1998, a non-profit organisation named ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has been responsible for managing and coordinating the internet’s domain names. ICANN ensures that what is typed in the address bar matches the site trying to be accessed. Such an organisation is necessary to ensure the stability and growth of the internet.
At the moment, the internet is an ungoverned, unregulated, anarchic medium – merely a mutual agreement between computer users all around the world to connect to each other in a certain way. Given this blank slate, business and innovation has thrived online. Business to business commerce has exploded over the past few years. In Australia, 31 per cent of businesses reported placing orders over the internet in 2004. This will grow as business uptake of broadband intensifies.
Until now, ICANN’s role has been merely to facilitate and smooth this explosion of internet activity.
The European Union, as well as a motley collection of less-than-democratic nations such as Iran, Cuba and China, are forcefully trying to replace ICANN with an as-yet-unspecified UN department. Such a proposal will be under consideration at the United Nations Working Group on Internet Governance meeting next month in Tunis.
Arguing that the internet is a global resource, the European Union insists that the private sector must share its responsibility of overseeing it with the UN.
By ceding this power over to governments, every aspect of the anarchic freedom that the internet represents is under threat. The UN wants to use the internet’s structure to pursue specific goals – to close the “digital divide” and to “harness the potential of information” for the world’s impoverished.
But the inequalities the UN claims it wants to overcome stem not from the internet itself, but from government policy. Syria has even advocated taxing domain names to subsidise an international universal service right.
No matter how hard the new UN body will try to reverse the “digital divide” by reallocating domain names and shifting the location of servers, the only way that internet uptake can be increased internationally is through action within the countries themselves.
That is, the same way any technological advance has filtered down to the poorer countries. By building stable institutions, maximising economic freedom, and ensuring prosperity, which creates consumer demand. No amount of political action by the UN can replace this process.
The defining characteristic of the internet is not intelligence or its capacity to fulfil specific aims, but its simplicity. It is a “dumb” medium, which is only structurally suited to transmitting data from one computer to another. It can’t conduct public policy.
Businesses and individuals have come to rely on the internet to carry out their personal and commercial interactions. UN control threatens this.
What this new bureaucracy would clearly be able to do is restrict and censor websites and addresses, as well as place heavy regulatory burdens on their authentication, maintenance and pricing structure. This is a prospect no doubt relished by European social democrats who would like to extend their national content and industry policies across national borders.
Consider the countries most actively pushing for the UN takeover. Leading the charge is Iran, with Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba and Venezuela hot on its heels. None of these nations is known for their promotion of political, economic or social freedoms. Iran bans more than 10,000 websites on charges of immorality, and jails journalists and bloggers who disagree with the ruling elite. The “Great Firewall of China” has a similar effect.
Should the internet be under the control of a network of regulators hammering out compromises about what is and isn’t proper online activity? Member states in the UN run the gamut from the totalitarian to the democratic. Any attempt to assert control will result in an approach contrary to the liberal democratic ideals that dominate online activity.
The internet needs the technicians of ICANN, not the policy committees of the UN.