Global governance is the internet’s hope

I don’t read a lot of blogs or tech news, but last summer I couldn’t help noticing tons of commentary about the United Nations’ “threatened takeover of the internet,” which commentators described as though it would spell the end of freedom rather than a victory for fairness.?Ǭ† (I find it hard to imagine a rational justification for the present U.S. control of internet governance.)

The internet is a global resource and a global infrastructure; it’s a truism of the information age that cross-border information flows are one of the engines of globalization and a challenge to national sovereignty. But it has been interesting to see that the groups worried about the United Nations’ interest in internet governance are distinctly different groups, with different sets of concerns, from the so-called “anti-globalization” movement that is focused on the WTO.

The specific development that was being discussed was a meeting last summer of the UN’s Working Group on Internet Governance, which was an outgrowth of the World Summit on the Information Society, the U.N.’s attempt to address international issues of information and communication. The presumption of the WGIG was that as an international infrastructure the internet is naturally in the domain of international policymaking. A major concern represented in this group’s final report is that far too much of the internet’s governance is left to the United States, with a range of outcomes that are less than ideal for many countries of the world. While the WGIG didn’t reach solid conclusions about any precise role for the U.N. in internet governance, it did resolve that global internet governance is needed and that its scope should be broader than the present functions of ICANN (the private U.S. organization that assigns IP addresses and oversees domain names for the world), encompassing also “other significant public policy issues, such as critical Internet resources, the security and safety of the Internet, and developmental aspects and issues pertaining to the use of the Internet.” (WGIG Final Report.)

Some are concerned that U.N. control of the internet would result in censorship and a loss of access to controversial material, versus the more open, civil libertarian policies of U.S. governance. It is true that intellectual freedom as we understand it in the United States does not necessarily have the same status in many countries of the world. Brazil has expressed opposition to ICANN’s creation of a triple-X top-level domain, and we periodically read stories about lawsuits against American internet companies for selling Nazi memorabilia to customers in Germany and suchlike, or alternatively protests from Americans about American internet companies’ cooperation with the Chinese government in helping them censor internet access in their country.

For us, as American librarians, intellectual freedom is a no-brainer, meaning both that its value is so obvious to us that other countries’ policies limiting it more tightly than ours defy our comprehension, and that it is something that we tend to believe in more than something we contemplate. One thing that Americans should realize, however, is that imposing our own civil libertarian values, however right they may be even in a universal sense, on other countries by denying them representation in a global internet governance process is anti-democratic prima facie.

As obvious as the value of our civil liberties are to us, there are certain other features of a good society that tend to be more obvious to people in other countries than they are in ours, and these also relate to global internet governance. As offensive as Germany’s censorship of Nazi material is to American civil liberties advocates, the low relative valuation of social inclusion and equity of access to information and communication in the United States – our extreme capitalism – is offensive to people in other parts of the world.

The real threat, now emerging distinctly, to the future of the internet comes from this social failing of our own, not from the censoriousness of China or Brazil. I am referring to the news of three new developments: an international webcasting treaty being pushed for by U.S. companies that would trump present copyright law in the interest of copyright owners; legislative opposition to the “net neutrality” that we take for granted and on which we rely to travel freely on the net; and just announced corporate plans to charge money for grade-A access to email service, which will be required for email senders wanting to bypass certain classes of spam filters. Peter Suber describes all three of these new developments in the March 2 issue of his Open Access Newsletter and provides links to background readings. This is an extremely important set of developments and I encourage everyone to read up on them, starting with Suber’s excellent summary. All three of these developments are rooted in corporate greed; accordingly, technolibertarians opposed to U.N. control of the internet have little to say about them, being as they are in favor of free-market capitalism as the answer to problems of the internet.

These developments will affect internet users globally, not just in the United States, but are being pursued in arenas where democratic representation is limited or non-existent for people outside of this country. Given the political climate (and level of activism and awareness) in the U.S., they seem likely to be realized. Under a global system of internet governance, however, where less capitalistic viewpoints were better represented, along with the viewpoints of less-wealthy populations, I think they would have less of a chance. To me what that adds up to is an important element of freedom that global internet governance promises to preserve against threats from the United States, rather than the reverse, in addition to being a realization of the basic principles of fairness and democracy.

Additionally, global internet governance could mean the beginning of the realization of the great dream of international social governance, as the internet becomes more and more tightly woven into the fabric of life. International sovereignty, as used to be said often, is the path to peace…

2 comments on “Global governance is the internet’s hope

  1. Perhaps I’m not well enough versed in the issues at hand, but I don’t see the relevance of the problems you mention to the question of internet governance.

    First, the webcasting treaty being pushed by U.S. companies is also being pushed by European companies. In fact, it is based on the concept of a broadcasters’ right that exists in Europe but does not exist in the U.S. It’s no surprise that the U.S. interests who would gain from an extension of this right to webcasting are pushing for it, but I don’t think it is fair to say that this is push is necessarily being led by the U.S. companies involved. And I don’t see how U.N. governance of the internet would have any impact on whatever the outcome of this effort will be. This is a copyright issue that will be fought in Berne; ICANN or any U.N.-assembled successor has no input.

    Second, the net neutrality debate is a domestic matter that will affect customers of domestic ISPs. Internet governance, again, is not an issue with regard to net neutrality. Whether the new AT&T/BellSouth can get away with charging companies like Google or Yahoo for fast-track access to their customers is not impacted by which body controls domain names.

    Likewise, whether AOL can get away with charging companies for fast-tracking email delivery to its customers also has no bearing on what body controls the internet. AOL will do what it will do, and its customers will either leave or not.

    What I think you’re ignoring is that “internet governance” is, ultimately, voluntary. If China or Brazil or anyone else is unhappy with the way the internet is run, any of them can de-peer. China can set up its own internet if it wishes, and control the extent to which its internet connects with the rest of the world’s internet. It appears that China may be moving in that direction. ICANN has an important, but really rather limited role in controlling how the internet works. ICANN makes sure that when I, here in Oregon, click on a link for, my browser loads this website; and when a user in Russia or one is Australia clicks on the same link, the same thing happens. ICANN, for all its various problems over the years, has done a remarkably good job of making sure this happens.

    The internet was not conceived of and implemented on “democratic” principles, it was conceived of with cooperation and openness being its bedrock. Its that cooperation and openness that we rely on, as you say, to travel freely on the internet. Any nation that no longer wishes to cooperate can leave it behind. That would be unfortunate, but it’s a lot less unfortunate than the possibility of having the open architecture of the internet compromised by a governing body that does not respect freedom of speech.

    I hardly consider myself a technolibertarian, but you’ll have to do a lot better than you did to demonstrate to me why it is desireable to put control of the internet into the hands of a body that has, with a straight face, appointed countries like Cuba and Iran to human rights commissions. ICANN is a techical body that has stayed out of politics; the U.N. is politics, and it could be disasterous to replace technology with politics.

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