Coming soon to a computer screen near you, from the folks who brought you peacekeeping in Rwanda, a firm hand against worldwide terrorism, and advanced bookkeeping to the Oil-for-Food program -- it's the Internet!
The United Nations is drawing fire from its most ardent watchdog on Capitol Hill, Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), for a recent report recommending that its International Telecommunications Union (ITU) wrest from the U.S. governance of the Internet. The report's genesis is a classic tale of bureaucracy: it's a product of the Working Group of Internet Governance (WGIG), which was recommended at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the first phase of which was held by ITU in Geneva in late 2003.
The WGIG report, issued in June, proposed a forum for Internet "dialogue" and an international body that would assume the duties and functions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Put simply, the U.N. would control the Internet at its most pivotal points.
What's so wrong with U.S. governance of the Internet that U.N. governance would be an improvement? CNET reporter Declan McCullagh has helpfully distilled a WGIG transcript. The complaints mostly concern spam, "more democratic representativeness," and a desire for centralized expertise.
There may be legitimate issues of fairness worth considering. In the utopia of kumbaya international cooperation, all parties would have jointly invented the Internet and peacefully, fairly governed it. In the real world, the U.S. invested in the Internet's development and infrastructure, creating an environment in which it could thrive.
Still, in terms of basic problem solving, this proposal makes no sense. As Senator Coleman argued, the U.N. has larger problems on its hands, such as a hapless bureaucracy and a "culture of corruption." The U.N.'s history of accommodating tyranny and repression raises frightening prospects for its governance of the Internet.
Documents from the Geneva WSIS summit offer a glimpse of U.N. intentions for the Internet. A vehicle for platitudes such as "cultural diversity," the "empowerment of women," and information access for the impoverished, the Geneva summit's Declaration of Principles is littered with meaningless products of committee. For example, "We also reaffirm that democracy, sustainable development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as good governance at all levels are interdependent and mutually reinforcing." Such wording leaves open the possibility that human rights and democracy are expendable. While the document reaffirms the free speech article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it shifts emphasis to universal participation.
The ITU has chosen Tunisia to host the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society this November. Holding a world summit on the information society where free elections are a memory and free speech is a punchline is a telling preview of U.N. Internet governance. Tunisia blocks access to news and websites critical of its government, according to the Index on Censorship. Tunisia's free speech record reads like Castro's with editors of banned newspapers in jail and state harassment of journalists and other human rights groups.
When questioned about the summit, a U.N. spokesman defended the choice to MSNBC.com, "If the member states want something, it is their right to vote for it." And that's precisely the problem: the majority may prevail at Turtle Bay, but who's voting and what are they enacting? Dictatorships have a nagging tendency to support each other. Look no further than Cuba's seat on the Commission on Human Rights or "Zionism is racism."
An ITU official similarly told MSNBC.com, "The onus, if anything, is on the Tunisian government to set the record straight and answer queries about its functioning." It would be difficult to imagine a U.N. agency acting so undiplomatically toward its gracious host.
If the Bush administration and the Senate hold strong, U.N. Internet governance may remain a mere fantasy of repressive bureaucrats and dictators. Coleman and administration officials have flatly refused to consider international governance, though a State Department official said at a Washington symposium last week, "We are always ready to engage in dialogue."
If member states of the WGIG don't like the Internet, they can get their own -- and they've threatened to do just that. Vocal critics like China and Brazil could choose a "nuclear option," creating separate, duplicate governance. As a result, reports CNET, users could find two different web sites at the same address.
In spite of the chaos, the fragmented Internet could be an attractive option. Countries, corporations, and consumers could choose the superior infrastructure, service, and pricing in a freer market. What could be a better tribute to the birthplace of the Internet?
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