net.wars: Who's in charge?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 12 December 2003

Wendy looks at the people who should be managing the Internet, and searches in vain for signs of intelligence, or leadership.

Wendy M Grossman

The key topics of debate about the Net and its impact on societies have hardly changed since the first two ARPAnet nodes were strung together: free speech, anonymity, and censorship; the digital divide; the future of intellectual property; security; and governance. The money flowed and ebbed, but these topics remain eternal.

This week's World Summit on the Information Society brought together representatives of more than 130 governments and 940 non-governmental organisations besides. The event is being attended by, I am told by reliable witnesses, something like 20,000 people, who have completely taken over a major chunk of Geneva. It seems clear from the reports issuing from the conference that people are leaving with pretty much the ideologies they came in with, no matter who they danced with while the plenaries were on. China wants control; the US wants proprietary software; and the UN's ITU wants ICANN's job. That last topic has been tabled for discussion in 2005.

The "Information Society" must have seemed a really tempting topic for a world summit. Georgia Tech's Hans Klein's paper explains why it seemed to be a good fit. But this isn't something like the environment, where the only way to stop certain types of polluting practices is through international cooperation. It is tempting to regard the information society the same way. But where one man's carbon dioxide is not another man's oxygen, one man's pornography may well be another man's innocuous photo. The information society is instead a situation where a single group of technologies poses the same questions to many countries - but where each country answers those questions according to its own culture, economic resources, and values.

If anyone could pull together these disparate interests and make them hammer out a harmonious set of goals, it ought to be the UN. Except for two things. First, a topic like freedom of speech and censorship is not specifically a Net problem. Rather, it's a problem that pervades all of society, beginning with the press and ending with the freedom to associate. Similarly, the digital divide is a reflection of existing economic disparities, and considering how to finance bridging the divide has to be considered in conjunction with issues such as Third World debt. Second, topics like intellectual property and Internet governance, which are a much better fit for a global body, are issues on which the UN has already chosen a side, as its agency, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, consistently espouses policies to make the bean-counters of the entertainment industry sing (an unpleasant noise if ever there was one).

As for Internet governance, I don't actually think it would necessarily be a bad thing for the technical oversight ICANN is supposed to be responsible for to move to an international body. I do think that it's probably long since time for more of Internet governance to move away from being based in the US and toward a more international overview. I'm just not sure it should be the ITU, for two reasons. One is that the ITU was involved in the first set of proposals to revamp the domain name system. That was ultimately rejected in favour of forming ICANN in the first place. The second is that the ITU in general is more used to dealing with traditional telecommunications providers, and it's not clear exactly whose cricket team the ITU would cheer for in a conflict of interests.

In a way, this is good. The less national governments can agree on basic principles, the less they are able to agree on how to control the Net, and the easier it is for someone in a white hat to make an end run around bad laws written by the net.ignorant. That kind of activity is why we currently have strong cryptography available to ordinary users, and anonymous browsing services to allow people living in repressive regimes to access a wider variety of information than their governments allow. On the other hand, it's also easier for someone in a black hat to make an end run around virtuous laws written by the net.literate. That's how we have computer criminals, among other things. And because it's true that one government's white hat is another's black hat, in the end either you have lowest-common-denominator rules or you have a complex of clashing rules. For the last twenty years, we've had the latter. If you can't host your site in China, host it in the Netherlands!

The scuttlebutt coming out of WSIS is that the agreements seem to have been made beforehand, with little actual fruit being produced by the in-person discussions and speeches of this week. If you're like me, you internally hear Sir Humphrey Appleby telling Jim Hacker that of course the communique was written before the meeting; otherwise, how could it be cleared by everyone in time to act as the exit visa to get the delegates past the press?

The absurd part of it all, really, is that so few of us outside government circles even knew about this summit before it happened. Wouldn't you think that, if these people truly understood what they were trying to summit about, they'd have had at least some of the preparatory meetings online and opened up discussions to anyone who cared to participate? After all, lots of us have been thinking about these issues for more than fifteen years.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).