For the 2 billion or so users of the Internet, the most amazing thing is that the World Wide Web (WWW) pretty much runs itself. Or at least it appears to do so. But there are ominous signs that this behemoth is attracting political attention that could result in crippling regulation by individual countries. Electronic pipes can be turned off or on at will. But is the United Nations the right body to run this free-wheeling entity?
You should keep an eye on the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to be held in Dubai in December 2012. This conference of the 193 countries that make up the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has the goal of negotiating a comprehensive treaty that will govern international telecommunications services worldwide. A detailed agenda for this meeting had yet to be published as of this writing but the Internet is likely to loom large (www.itu.int).
The organizations that currently keep the Internet largely free and open are mostly US-based nonprofit entities such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). However, the political influence of the WWW has grown dramatically in recent years particularly in emerging powers such as Brazil, India, and China. These countries are bringing into question the governing influence of the United States over the Internet.
By handing over the control of the Internet to the ITU, lesser powers would have the means of changing their degree and sphere of influence. Since each country gets a single vote in the ITU, this would effectively reduce the power of the current nonprofits and increase the relative power of the emerging countries.
Although the Clinton Administration was instrumental in setting up the existing crop of semi-public organizations, the current administration has shown little interest so far in the possible looming clash of international legislation. In fact, the United States has yet to nominate its delegates to the WCIT. Given that this is a major international conference, the White House could be making a big mistake in delaying nominations.
The recently elected Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has already spoken out on the issue of Internet control. “If we are to talk about the democratization of international relations, I think that a critical sphere is information exchange and global control over such exchanges,” said Putin, speaking shortly after his inauguration. Both the Russian and Chinese governments are likely to support U.N. governance of the Internet.
However, there are some signs that awareness of threats to the Internet as we know it is becoming more widespread. Take, for example, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, a new book by former Beijing-based CNN journalist Rebecca MacKinnon (Basic Books, New York, NY, 2012). In her book, MacKinnon makes a case for the political enfranchisement of Internet users. I find the cover of MacKinnon’s book to be rather disturbing. The cover shows a raised arm in the style of “Black Power.” Hence the concept of “Netizens” for popular control of the WWW. This concept is not new. It has been used by the populist Electronic Frontier Foundation as conceived by Mitch Kapor, founder and former CEO of Lotus Corp.
On the other hand, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Information Age columnist L. Gordon Crovitz commented, “The Internet shows how creativity can flourish when government governs least. The Web allows permission-less innovation where no one needs an operating license or other authorization. This doesn’t leave much of a role for multinational groups such as the U.N., even if some governments are plotting otherwise.”
In my view, the Internet works remarkably well today. If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it? But if the White House does not get more involved with WCIT, we could end up with an Internet where large sections are under political control. I, for one, don’t wish to go there.