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Should the United Nations control the Internet? This is not just a hypothetical question.
The ruling elites in a number of foreign countries (including <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />South Africa, China, and Brazil) believe that the United States exerts too much control over the Internet. They believe that it would be better if something called the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency, controlled the 'Net. The first major public airing of this argument was to have taken place during this month's UN-convened World Summit on the Information Society, in Geneva. But as the Washington Times reported on Monday, this proposal did not survive the World Summit's preparatory talks, and therefore won't be officially discussed at the Summit (Dec. 10-12).
This is by no means a permanent defeat for the idea of giving the UN control of the Internet. Since there's a good chance that this idea will raise its head again before too long, it would be useful to look at little more closely at the issue.
The complaint advanced by China et. al. is straightforward. At present, a private company called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) fashions global standards on Internet issues such as how web sites are named. It irks the Chinese and their allies that (a) ICANN is located in California and (b) it has extensive contact with the U.S. government. They feel it's unfair to the rest of the world to give Americans so much influence over ICANN. The just thing to do (they say) is to strip ICANN of its power over the Internet and hand that influence over to the ITU, which, as part of the UN, is not dominated by any one country.
Now, ICANN is far from perfect. It would benefit from more procedural transparency in its decision-making, as Milton L. Mueller of Syracuse University has suggested. ICANN could also, Prof. Mueller believes, make its board of directors more "broadly representative" of the global Internet community. That could reassure some of the foreign complainants that ICANN is not totally under the thumb of the U.S. government. (ICANN already is taking steps towards increasing the diversity of its board.)
It's one thing to say that ICANN could be improved, however. This is a reasonable statement. It's unreasonable, however, for China and its fellow ICANN-skeptics to claim that the United Nations would be able to do a better job of managing the Internet than ICANN, without actually demonstrating why this is true.
Indeed, there are reasons to believe the UN would make an ineffective guardian for the Internet, and all those characteristics of the Internet that make it so dynamic. I'm talking mainly here about the unprecedented global freedom of expression that the Internet makes possible. If one looks closely at the UN's record, one discovers that it, historically, has not been very sympathetic to the cause of protecting free speech.
Consider the following examples:
During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Third World countries used the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to press for a "new world information order.” This grand-sounding project claimed that governments around the world needed to be more involved in "managing" information flows to serve the "public interest” better. Part of this new order was the idea of forcing journalists to obtain government licensing in order to report the news. American journalists were quick to point out the dangers this system posed to media independence -- if a reporter uncovers news a government doesn't like, and exposes it, she could lose her license. Despite continuous criticism from the Reagan administration for supporting this obvious bid to impose censorship, UNESCO persisted in supporting this drive for a "new order.” In disgust, President Reagan pulled the U.S. out of UNESCO in 1984. (The U.S. rejoined just this year.)
In 1995, delegates attending a UNESCO-convened meeting on "Women and the Media" held in Toronto, Canada called for various forms of government control on the media. These included taking legislative action to combat the "predominantly male culture of the mainstream media" by passing laws mandating "gender-sensitive" hiring practices for media outlets. (This heavy-handed regulatory approach echoed again that year during a UN conference on women's issues in Beijing). This attitude does not suggest a very high appreciation on the UN's part regarding the value of ensuring that media outlets are free from clumsy government interference.
The UN's readiness to sympathize with supporters of censorship made an appearance last year. Its 2002 Human Development Report praised South Africa's Human Rights Commission (a government-funded body) for persecuting journalists in 2000 who dared to write investigative reports of high-level corruption. The Commission slapped the journalists with trumped-up charges of "subliminal racism.” The UN, bizarrely, said that this persecution helped to build "respect for human rights."
Now, ICANN is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It could use some reform. But ICANN should not be scrapped simply to appease a few critics, without those critics explaining what they would substitute in its place.