Monday, October 31, 2005

Should America Rule the Internet?

The issue of internet governance strikes me as an issue that will be hotly debated over the next few decades. The US monopoly on internet governance cannot be seen as anything but an unqualified success, but the burgeoning amount of new foreign language based content and discomfort over American influence over the newest form of media is making a lot of people uncomfortable. With that in mind, these words from The Economist, strike me as particularly interesting.
Nevertheless, ICANN's stewardship has succeeded because its focus has been not on politics, but on making the network as efficient as possible. The sometimes fierce debates that break out among techies have been conducted transparently. The result has been an internet open to innovation and free expression, led mostly by the private sector and relatively free from government interference.Yet because the system runs under American auspices, other countries are unhappy with this arrangement.

Many of those who want to relieve America of its control think ICANN's job should be taken over by a United Nations agency. To anybody who has spent much time observing the UN at work, this sounds like a poor idea. It is no accident that the world's telephone systems remained so expensive and static for so long. They have been heavily regulated nationally and their international links have been controlled by the International Telecommunication Union, a UN body which once rejected the idea of the internet in favour of a more controllable and less efficient system. That standard never amounted to much. The ITU's approach reflected the interests of state-run telecom monopolies, which themselves are now being shaken to their foundations by the internet.

It is also no accident that many of the countries loudest in their demands for the internet to be taken out of American hands are those, such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, that are keenest on restricting its use by their own citizens. These and many other countries are hoping to use the lead-up to the UN's World Summit on the Information Society to begin to wrest control away from America. By changing its position last week the EU had hoped to act as a "bridge" between America and other countries. Instead, it has simply isolated America, with potentially damaging results.

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