“In my opinion, freedom of speech seems to be a politically sensitive issue. A lot of policy matters are behind it.” So observed Houlin Zhao, the man who wants to control the greatest forum for free expression in history.
Zhao, a director of the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and a former senior Chinese-government official, is a leader in the United Nations’s effort to supplant the United States government in the supervision of the Internet. At a series of conferences called the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held under the aegis of the ITU, and set to culminate in Tunis this November, the U.N. has floated a series of proposals for doing exactly that.
The U.N.’s professed goals, which include expanding Internet access in developing countries and fighting spam, are laudable. However, the substance of its proposals–shifting Internet governance from the U.S. to a U.N. body–would produce an Internet in which regulations smother free speech, strangle net-driven economic growth, and threaten America’s online security.
A typical U.N. enterprise, in other words.
The Internet is decentralized by design, having grown from the U.S. government’s efforts to build a computer network that could survive catastrophic failures. Some elements, however, must be centrally administered to guarantee the Internet’s orderly operation. The U.N. has its sights set on the most important of these, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN, a nonprofit contractor for the U.S. Department of Commerce, ensures that top-level domain names (.com, .edu, .uk), specific domain names (yahoo.com, ebay.com), and IP addresses (22.214.171.124, the numeric address for nationalreview.com), do not conflict. An Internet without ICANN would be like a telephone network in which everyone picked his own telephone number. ICANN delegates much of its work to a mix of regional organizations and commercial registries. This system has served the Internet well.
Nevertheless, a 2003 WSIS meeting asked U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to convene a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) to develop proposals to internationalize control of the Internet. Composed of representatives from the private sector, NGOs, and governments, including those of Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Iran, and a number of supranationally inclined European states, the 41-member body delivered its final report this July. WGIG’s proposals include shifting control of ICANN to an “International Internet Council,” entrusted with an additional murky mandate over Internet-related “international public policy.”
ICANN’s critics correctly observe that progress has been lacking. There are too few domain names in non-Roman characters and the number of available Internet addresses has not increased quickly enough. There is much to be gained, and little to be feared, from an international discussion of these and similar technical and policy issues.
Yet even those sympathetic to the idea of an internationally controlled Internet are skeptical of WGIG’s proposals: John Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, observes that creating an organization with so broad a mandate would be a “terrible idea.” Indeed, the history of large bureaucracies, particularly large international bureaucracies, provides little confidence that the U.N. can handle any task without kilometers of red tape, let alone continue ICANN’s minimalist private-sector approach. Will the registration of a domain name, now a five-minute process for anyone with a credit card, eventually require approval from UNESCO? Will domain-registration fees, currently a few dollars per domain, skyrocket to subsidize websites for countries without electricity? There are many ways that U.N. control could make the Internet slower and more expensive, and few improvements that the private sector cannot supply. For instance, with AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google working on the spam problem, it is doubtful that the U.N. will have much to add. It would also be unwise to entrust the world’s largest marketplace to an organization whose top officials are notorious for lining their pockets. Small wonder then, that Senator Norm Coleman (R., Minn.), who has launched repeated investigations into U.N. corruption, describes WGIG’s proposals as a “giant and foolhardy step backwards.”
Only dictators, and, perhaps, the doctrinaire internationalists who so often abet them, stand to gain from placing the Internet under “international” control. If, for example, the U.N. were to control domain names, its component tyrannies would find it much easier to censor and repress. After all, “internet public policy” is subject to interpretation, and it is hard to imagine international bureaucrats resisting–as ICANN and the U.S. largely have–the temptation to politicize their task. At first, this could even seem reasonable: E.U. officials might seek to eliminate neo-Nazi domains. Inevitably, however, dictatorships would seek to extinguish undesirable foreign web content at the source. Given the U.N.’s penchant for condemning good causes, it is easy to imagine Tehran pushing to suppress “racist” (i.e. “Zionist”) websites, or steady pressure from Beijing to eliminate Taiwan’s “.tw” domain. (One China, one top-level domain.)
China, a major proponent of a U.N.-administered Internet, already operates the world’s largest and most advanced system of online censorship. Thousands of government agents, including some from ITU Director Zhao’s former Department of Telecommunications, make sure that websites, e-mails, and even search-engine results deemed threatening to the regime remain inaccessible to a fifth of the world’s population. U.S. companies have shamefully participated in this system, as shown by China’s recent jailing of dissident journalist Shi Tao based on information revealed by Yahoo!, Inc. Chinese Internet users are unable to access the websites of the Voice of America or, even, the BBC. The regime’s filtering is so sophisticated that many sites, such as cnn.com, time.com, and, curiously, yale.edu, are filtered page-by-page, thus maintaining the illusion of openness. Other WGIG participants have similar policies. Like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia also recognize that control over the Internet brings them closer to control over minds. It is unsurprising, then, that Mr. Zhao and his ilk support the U.N.’s drive to give them more of it.
That the next WSIS summit should take place in Tunisia speaks volumes. The Tunisian government and President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s relatives control all of the country’s internet-service providers. As in China, international news and human-rights websites are routinely blocked. Citizens who post their dissent online face lengthy prison terms. That the U.N. would award a meeting on the fate of the Internet to such a regime betrays the incoherence of an internationalism that insists on treating dictatorships and democracies as equals.
Surrendering the Internet might also increase America’s vulnerability to online security threats. It could be difficult to guard against cyber-terrorism or to pursue terrorists online, if the Internet were under the supervision of a body unsure of what terrorism is, but quite sure that it does not like the United States.
Although the Bush administration will not relinquish U.S. oversight of the Internet, a future president may be more willing to make this seemingly small concession to curry favor with internationalist elites or supposed strategic partners. As with the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court, Washington’s refusal to bend to the “international community” over the Internet might be magnified into another gleefully touted example of American arrogance. America’s rivals, less constrained by electoral cycles, tend to view foreign policy over the longer term. They are willing to wait. If we are to preserve the Internet as we know it, the Bush administration must take steps to foreclose the possibility of it ever becoming the plaything of dictators.
–Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky is a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a student at Harvard Law School. He may be contacted at email@example.com. Joseph Barillari is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science and bioinformatics at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.