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The World Wide Web (of Bureaucrats)?

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Kofi Annan, Coming to a Computer Near You! The Internet's long run as a global cyberzone of freedom—where governments take a "hands off" approach—is in jeopardy. Preparing for next month's U.N.-sponsored "World Summit on the Information Society" (or WSIS) in Tunisia, the European Union and others are moving aggressively to set the stage for an as-yet unspecified U.N. body to assert control over Internet operations and policies now largely under the purview of the U.S. In recent meetings, for an example, an EU spokesman asserted that no single country should have final authority over this "global resource."

To his credit, the U.S. State Department's David Gross, bristled back: "We will not agree to the U.N. taking over management of the Internet." That stands to reason. The Internet was developed in the U.S. (as are upgrades like Internet 2) and is not a collective "global resource." It is an evolving technology, largely privately owned and operated, and it should stay that way.

Nevertheless the "U.N. for the Internet" crowd say they want to "resolve" who should have authority over Internet traffic and domain-name management; how to close the global "digital divide"; and how to "harness the potential of information" for the world's impoverished. Also on the table: how much protection free speech and expression should receive online.

While WSIS conferees have agreed to retain language enshrining free speech (despite the disapproval of countries that clearly oppose it) this is not a battle we've comfortably won. Some of the countries clamoring for regulation under the auspices of the U.N.—such as China and Iran—are among the most egregious violators of human rights.

Meanwhile, regulators across the globe have long lobbied for greater control over Internet commerce and content. A French court has attempted to force Yahoo! to block the sale of offensive Nazi materials to French citizens. An Australian court has ruled that the online edition of Barron's (published by Dow Jones, parent company of this newspaper), could be subjected to Aussie libel laws—which, following the British example, is much more intolerant of free speech than our own law. Chinese officials—with examples too numerous for this space—continue to seek to censor Internet search engines.

The implications for online commerce are profound. The moment one puts up a Web site, one has "gone global"—perhaps even automatically subjected oneself to the laws of every country on the planet.

A global Internet regulatory state could mean that We Are the World—on speech and libel laws, sales taxes, privacy policies, antitrust statutes and intellectual property. How then would a Web site operator or even a blogger know how to act or do business? Compliance with some 190 legal codes would be confusing, costly and technically impossible for all but the most well-heeled firms. The safest option would be to conform online speech or commercial activities to the most restrictive laws to ensure global compliance. If you like the idea of Robert Mugabe setting legal standards for everyone, then WSIS is for you.

The very confusion of laws makes some favor a "U.N. for the Internet" model. Others propose international treaties, or adjudication by the World Trade Organization, to stop retaliation and trade wars from erupting over privacy, gambling and pornography. 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 citizens, consumers, and companies.

We favor the non-regulatory approach. But where laissez-faire is not an option, the second-best solution is that the legal standards governing Web content should be those of the "country of origin." Ideally, governments should assert authority only over citizens physically within its geographic borders. This would protect sovereignty and the principle of "consent of the governed" online. It would also give companies and consumers a "release valve" or escape mechanism to avoid jurisdictions that stifle online commerce or expression.

The Internet helps overcome artificial restrictions on trade and communications formerly imposed by oppressive or meddlesome governments. Allowing these governments to reassert control through a U.N. backdoor would be a disaster.