There's mounting evidence that the Internet's good old days as a global cyberzone of freedom—where governments generally take a "hands off" approach—may be numbered.
In fact, two weeks ago, delegates from 192 countries met in Geneva to discuss how the Internet should be governed and what steps should be taken to solve the global "digital divide" and "harness the potential of information" on behalf of the world's poor. Also on the table at the session—the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society—was the question of domain name management and how much protection free speech and expression should receive on the Net.
The real issue, however, is whether a "United Nations for the Internet" is on the way. There was discussion at the recent conference of whether Internet decision making should be shifted from largely private management to the United Nations. Another summit is scheduled for 2005.
In one sense, none of this is surprising. Regulators across the globe have long been clamoring for greater control over content and commerce on the Internet. Ironically, in the guise of protecting the world's citizens, statists around the world want to get their hands on one of the world's most liberating technologies.
While the U.N. conferees have "generously" agreed to retain language that enshrines free speech, despite the disapproval of countries such as China and Iran, these matters are far from settled. There have been a few notable international cyberspats already, such as a French court's attempt to force Yahoo to block the sale of offensive Nazi materials to French citizens, and an Australian court's ruling that the online version of the Dow Jones publication Barron's could be subjected to that country's libel laws. And Chinese officials have attempted to censor the search engines Google, AltaVista and Yahoo.
If enough countries start playing these games, the threat of retaliation and potential trade wars increases as cross-border legal spats intensify over privacy, gambling, pornography, intellectual property and tax policy.
The implications for online commerce are profound. The moment one puts a Web site online, one has "gone global." Should that mean you have automatically and willingly subjected yourself to the laws of every country on the planet? Shouldn't the origin of content matter?
This is one reason some favor the "U.N. for the Net" model. But others have suggested that international treaties or adjudication by the World Trade Organization might offer the better approach. Still others assert that the best answer is to do nothing because the current unregulated Web environment has helped expand free speech and commerce globally for companies, consumers and citizens alike.
We favor the latter. But to the extent pure laissez-faire is not an option, "country of origin" standards may provide the best default solution. That is, government should only exert authority over those actors who physically reside within the confines of their traditional geographic borders. In this sense, an origin-based jurisdictional methodology protects sovereignty while giving meaning to the notion of "consent of the governed" in an online setting.
The great advantage of the Net is precisely the ability to reach as many people as possible and overcome artificial restrictions on trade or communications at traditional geographic boundaries. The Web, whatever problems it has raised, has provided far more opportunity and freedom to mankind. The United Nations appears eager to assume greater control over the Net, not because of its failures, but because it undermines members' authority. That sounds like the best reason ever to make sure a United Nations for the Internet never becomes a reality.