Beware a 'Digital Munich'
It sounds like a Tom Clancy plot. An anonymous group of international technocrats holds secretive meetings in Geneva. Their cover story: devising a blueprint to help the developing world more fully participate in the digital revolution. Their real mission: strategizing to take over management of the Internet from the U.S. and enable the United Nations to dominate and politicize the World Wide Web. Does it sound too bizarre to be true? Regrettably, much of what emanates these days from the U.N. does.
The Internet faces a grave threat. We must defend it. We need to preserve this unprecedented communications and informational medium, which fosters freedom and enterprise. We can not allow the U.N. to control the Internet.
The threat is posed by the U.N.-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society taking place later this month in Tunisia. At the WSIS preparatory meeting weeks ago, it became apparent that the agenda had been transformed. Instead of discussing how to place $100 laptops in the hands of the world's children, the delegates schemed to transfer Internet control into the hands of intrigue-plagued bureaucracies.
The low point of that planning session was the European Union's shameful endorsement of a plan favored by China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Cuba that would terminate the historic U.S. role in Internet government oversight, relegate both private enterprise and non-governmental organizations to the sidelines, and place a U.N.-dominated group in charge of the Internet's operation and future. The EU's declaration was a "political coup," according to London's Guardian newspaper, which predicted that once the world's governments awarded themselves control of the Internet, the U.S. would be able to do little but acquiesce.
I disagree. Such acquiescence would amount to appeasement. We cannot allow Tunis to become a digital Munich.
There is no rational justification for politicizing Internet governance within a U.N. framework. The chairman of the WSIS Internet Governance Subcommittee himself recently affirmed that existing Internet governance arrangements "have worked effectively to make the Internet the highly robust, dynamic and geographically diverse medium it is today, with the private sector taking the lead in day-to-day operations, and with innovation and value creation at the edges."
Nor is there a rational basis for the anti-U.S. resentment driving the proposal. The history of the U.S. government's Internet involvement has been one of relinquishing control. Rooted in a Defense Department project of the 1960s, the Internet was transferred to civilian hands and then opened to commerce by the National Science Foundation in 1995. Three years later, the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers assumed governance responsibility under Department of Commerce oversight. Icann, with its international work force and active Governmental Advisory Committee, is scheduled to be fully privatized next year. Privatization, not politicization, is the right Internet governance regime.
We do not stand alone in our pursuit of that goal. The majority of European telecommunications companies have already dissented from the EU's Geneva announcement, with one executive pronouncing it "a U-turn by the European Union that was as unexpected as it was disturbing."
In addition to resentment of U.S. technological leadership, proponents of politicization are driven by fear -- of access to full and accurate information, and of the opportunity for legitimate political discourse and organization, provided by the Internet. Nations like China, which are behind the U.N. plan to take control, censor their citizens' Web sites, and monitor emails and chat rooms to stifle legitimate political dissent. U.N. control would shield this kind of activity from scrutiny and criticism.
The U.S. must do more to advance the values of an open Internet in our broader trade and diplomatic conversations. We cannot expect U.S. high-tech companies seeking business opportunities in growing markets to defy official policy; yet we cannot stand idly by as some governments seek to make the Internet an instrument of censorship and political suppression. To those nations that seek to wall off their populations from information and dialogue we must say, as Ronald Reagan said in Berlin, "Tear down this wall."
Allowing Internet governance to be politicized under U.N. auspices would raise a variety of dangers. First, it is wantonly irresponsible to tolerate any expansion of the U.N.'s portfolio before that abysmally managed and sometimes-corrupt institution undertakes sweeping, overdue reform. It would be equal folly to let Icann be displaced by the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union, a regulatory redoubt for those state telephone monopolies most threatened by the voice over Internet protocol revolution.
Also, as we expand the global digital economy, the stability and reliability of the Internet becomes a matter of security. Technical minutiae have profound implications for competition and trade, democratization, free expression and access to information, privacy and intellectual-property protection.
Responding to the present danger, I have initiated a Sense of the Senate Resolution that supports the four governance principles articulated by the administration on June 30:
I also intend to seek hearings in advance of the Tunis Summit to explore the implications of multinational politicization of Internet governance. While Tunis marks the end of the WSIS process, it is just the beginning of a long, multinational debate on the values that the Internet will incorporate and foster. Our responsibility is to safeguard the full potential of the new information society that the Internet has brought into being.
Mr. Coleman is a Republican senator from Minnesota.
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