Thinly Veiled Bid for State Control of Internet

Jonathan Zuck For 40 years, the Soviet bloc had three television channels that were programmed entirely by the government. They had control of how the west was portrayed behind the “iron curtain.” The cold war was prosecuted, at least to some extent, through the control of information and the careful manipulation of cultural awareness.

The internet changed everything. It has evolved into the most open and democratized communications tool the world has ever seen. Would it really be wise to return to the “good” old days with certain governments and terrorist organizations still intent on the control of information to sow the seeds of hatred?

Yet, a recent proposal from the European Union could lead to just such a scenario. At international meetings last week on how to govern the internet, the EU floated the idea of replacing the existing consumer-driven and industry-led system with a loose coalition of world governments that is supported by China and Iran.

The proposal begins innocuously by proposing that the new structure “should not replace existing mechanisms or institutions, but should build on the existing structures of internet governance…”. Yet, the specifics of the proposal include a comprehensive list of functions currently handled by institutions such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

While we can only assume that the EU made this proposal with the best of intentions, all those who cherish the dynamism, openness and freedom of the internet must be concerned about where it could lead.

Today, the technical functions of the internet are governed by Icann in close co-ordination with industry bodies and with input from government representatives from around the world. Icann’s job is to ensure that the internet remains stable, secure and technically sound for the billion people who use it everyday.

While some are concerned with Icann’s roots in the US government, the institution has demonstrated its independence over time and is scheduled to become fully independent of any government control in 2006.

Some aspects of the current system could still be improved, but its overall success is unquestionable. Under this framework, the internet has evolved into the global backbone for communications and commerce, and a critical tool for democratization and economic growth around the world.

The EU proposal would replace this system with a bureaucratic government coalition. Can such a body really be effective and efficient? And is it really appropriate that governments should have such control over internet policies dealing with the domain names and the infrastructure we all use to connect to the internet? Last week’s meetings in Geneva have already given us a taste of what life under that kind of regime would be like.

Delegations from China and Iran have been throwing their weight around in an attempt to exert undue control on the future of the internet and limit its openness. China’s rhetoric of “cultural sensitivity” gives me the shivers. They insisted repeatedly that representatives from industry and civil society groups be expelled from working meetings on cyber-security, privacy and consumer protection. Their message is clear: “Thanks for developing the internet; we will take it from here.”

These countries and others want to become global regulators of the internet. This effort is being driven under the guise of “internet governance,” but it is really about internet control: control of how and whether one gets access; control of content and control over the internet’s infrastructure, the crown jewels that make all of it work. What is important is that Icann becomes independent as planned and that the consumer and industry-driven approach is strengthened.

The internet has flourished through a balance of private investment and as-needed government intervention. Over the past 10 years, more than $1,000bn (€824bn) has been spent by businesses developing these networks and government has stepped in when laws or regulations were needed to deal with illegal actions or to ensure access to the internet. To upset that balance would be dangerous to the future of the internet. The current system may not be perfect, but it has proved to be effective by nearly every measure. I certainly enjoy having more than three channels from which to choose.

The writer is president of the Association for Competitive Technology, a global information technology trade association representing nearly 3,000 member companies worldwide

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