Friday, December 5, 2003

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This is a great idea. Not!

Disturbing developments are afoot in Internet governance, according to the Washington Post:

Leaders from almost 200 countries will convene next week in Geneva to discuss whether an international body such as the United Nations should be in charge of running the Internet, which would be a dramatic departure from the current system, managed largely by U.S. interests.

The representatives, including the heads of state of France, Germany and more than 50 other countries, are expected to attend the World Summit on the Information Society, which also is to analyze the way that Web site and e-mail addresses are doled out, how online disputes are resolved and the thorny question of how to tax Internet-based transactions.

Many developing nations complain that the world's most visible Internet governance body -- the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- does not adequately represent their interests and should be scrapped in favor of a group allied with the United Nations.

A U.N. agency being put in charge of regulating the Internet. Who wants this? According to this site, the key backers are China, Syria, Egypt, Vietnam, and South Africa. This story provides some additional background. [UPDATE: Marc Scribner links to this Reuters story says that China and Cuba will be among the strongest supporters of transfering power to the ITU.]

This makes me feel much better about this initiative.

In this interview, Milton Mueller, a longtime and vocal ICANN critic, voices a fair amount of displeasure at the WSIS conference:

In WSIS I see a danger that cyber activism gets linked to an anti-capitalist, anti-globalization movement, which I see as both reactionary and a certain dead-end. We need to create new forms of democratic and liberal institutions at the global level, and tying that agenda to old-style protectionism, statism and discredited neo-Marxist ideologies will take all the energy surrounding that project and flush it down the toilet....

The issue is the distribution of power, not nationality. An Internet governance system dominated by the EU or China or Brazil might make Europeans, Chinese or Brazilians happier (or would it?) but it would hardly be more just.

Still, maybe I'm being too harsh. Maybe a U.N.-centric system of governance can properly address concerns about the global digital divide. Oh, wait.

This kind of multilateralism I could do without.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds has more, and links to The Daily Summit, which plans to blog the WSIS. Henry Farrell provides some added detail in the history between the US, EU, and the International Telecommunications Union on this issue, about which I have some familiarity.

posted by Dan on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM


The Internet does not need to be "governed" thank you very much.

There was a time when it was possible that AOL or some other gigantic service provider might buy out everyone else and become the de-facto monopolist on internetworking. But thankfully it never happened.

Today as a practical matter nobody "owns" the Internet. It is a decentralized collection of independent networks that all agree to talk to each other (the word "Internet" comes from the term "inter-network"). The only centralization on the Internet is at the root DNS nameservers. These suffer ICANN only by the grace of their respective independent owners.

The transnational progressives and lefty social engineers can chit-chat all they want at their UN workshops about how they want to govern the Internet. But they will pry my cold dead hands from my keyboard before that will happen.

posted by: Gideon on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Exactly what is the problem with the internet that needs to be solved here? Or is this just a bureaucracy in search of a nice comfy mission?

posted by: R C Dean on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

People demand power. You can browse around the world of Indymedia for a lesson in how they view the WSIS and the potential it has for a power grab AGAINST private enterprise.

Anti-globalisation forces have been mounting an attack and in fact plan to demonstrate at this conference to apply social and political pressure to remove private enterprise from managing the infrastructure of the Internet. As usual, they play the broken record "private ownership is bad for democracy" on the phonograph.

Pop into the Indymedia IRC server at and join #indymedia. Mention WSIS and get your lollerskates out for the fun.

posted by: axiom on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

When the UN creates a tool as revolutionary and important as the internet, it can regulate it all it wants. Until then, shut yer yob you stupid git.

posted by: Kelli on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Exactly how does a group of countries that doesn't include the US propose to regulate the Internet? Magic?

posted by: Dave R on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

“The Internet does not need to be "governed" thank you very much.”

This is absolutely false. I strongly encourage everyone to read Lawrence Lessig’s wonderful book, Code. The Internet does need to be governed to prohibit spam and regulate the inevitable legitimate disputes between countries. We should, though, make sure that such a governing body does far more good than harm. It should not be devising rules simply to bash the United States and the capitalist world.

I always consider the United Nations types guilty until proven innocent. Their past record is abysmal and therefore they should not expect our unearned trust. Sometimes they indeed do good things. However, as a general rule---these folks are scoundrels and envious of America’s greatness. They are mostly motivated by purely jealousey.

posted by: David Thomson on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Information Society? I loved those guys. Didn't know they were still around.

I know that running synths takes some technical aptitude, but don't know that they'd be that great at running the entire internet.

Also not sure what they'd be doing at a "World Music" Conference. Thought that they were more 'techno'.

But hey, best of luck to them.

posted by: Art Wellesley on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

The irony is, the Chinese interest here, I am sure, has a lot to do with shutting down the ability of private citizens to speak freely on the internet. I'd bet there's no Indymedia-Beijing, now, is there?

posted by: Crank on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Um, the same way the ITU led to horrible things in international telecommunications, such as censoring chinese telephone calls?

This is really about a bunch of US organizations having a hammerlock on international standards.

posted by: Jason McCullough on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

There was a time back in the 1980s when the Europe and the ITU tried to replace the Internet TCP/IP communicaton protocol standards with something called OSI/TP4 and X.25. Basically it was an attempt by wrest control of the Internet out of the hands of the US.

The ITU is basically in the pockets of the PTT (Postal, Telephone and Telegraph) government monopolies, especially in the 3rd world. The ITU is a big reason why phone calls to 3rd world countries are so ridiculously expensive. Their bureaucracy is terrible. The OSI documents are written in uncomprehensible legalese and you must pay through the nose just to see them.

If the EU/ITU/UN had successfully took over the Internet 20 years ago, today instead of paying $19.95/month you would be paying $1.99 per minute to the World Network Bureau.

posted by: Gideon on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Kind of left me hanging.

So, you think ICANN is adequate? I agree with your points on the UN, but what about some ideas on ICANN, or even alternatives?

posted by: Taran on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

"The ITU is a big reason why phone calls to 3rd world countries are so ridiculously expensive."

No, that'd be because 3rd world state-owned telephone companies are corrupt bureaucracies.

posted by: Jason McCullough on 12.05.03 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

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