Much is being reported on the clash between the U.S. and most other world governments over who should control the internet... and the failure of diplomats at last week's Geneva meeting to agree on a document outlining the future of internet governance, which is (or was) supposed to get announced at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in mid-November.
Many of the governments who want to assert more control over the way the internet works are not friends of human rights and free speech. Like China, Iran, and the summit's host country, Tunisia. Human rights groups are, shall we say, concerned about what this will mean for the future of free speech and human rights activism on the internet. A case in point: China has moved to block the exiled Chinese dissident organization, Human Rights in China, from participating as a non-governmental organization at WSIS.
Many other non-governmental and "civil society" groups have been allowed to attend WSIS - but just to voice their opinions about whatever gets announced, since none of these groups have been included in the actual negotiations. NGO leaders say they're now considering a boycott of the meeting and may set up a parallel summit. For more concerns see this account by Robert Guerra.
Experts on internet governance issues are worried that we may soon need to bid goodbye to the global internet as we've known it so far. Susan Crawford writes: "efforts are underway around the world to make it possible for network providers to substitute their walled gardens for what we now think of as our internet." Read her whole post.
Dana Blankenhorn at Moore's Lore also worries the internet could soon become fragmented. He shares with us a long analysis of the WSIS internet governance mess by Dr. Milton Mueller of Internet Governance. He argues that while the U.S. intends to be a champion of free speech and the preservation of the internet as we know and love it today, it has so badly mishandled the situation that the outcome is likely to be a lot worse than it could have been. Here are the concluding three paragraphs:
The US could have, and should have, privatized and internationalized its oversight authority when it had a chance. It could have, and should have, insisted on robust, democratic accountability mechanisms for ICANN that would have pre-empted demands for centralized, old- style inter-governmental oversight. It could have, and should have, insisted on negotiating binding international agreements protecting the Internet from arbitrary governmental interference and regulation. But it didn't. And now the debate has devolved to a choice between "US control" versus "UN control." If that is the choice, it is only a matter of time before collective international control wins.
What seems to have been lost in the shuffle is the idea of distributed, cooperative control that involves individuals, technical and academic groups, Internet businesses and limited, lawful interactions with governments. The idea that nation-states should not have the ability to arbitrarily intervene in the Internet's operation whenever they feel like it, but should be bound by clear, negotiated constitutional principles, has been crowded out of the debate.
As the WSIS debate spills into the US media, do not permit the US government to wrap itself up in the flag of Internet freedom. It is reaping what it sowed. Its own special, extra-legal authority over ICANN and the Internet has been the lightning rod for politicization. Its insistence on retaining control, and the spillover from its unilateralism in other areas such as the war in Iraq, has done tremendous damage to its credibility. Now the Internet is paying the price.
Blankenhorn then remarks:
Let me repeat something here. All the ITU or any international body need do in order to fork the Internet is to do it. There is no army, and no weapon, which can prevent the creation of new DNS regimes, especially if national governments choose to force ISPs to point to them.
The U.S. is allowing the Internet to be broken up into alternate, regional, and national authorities, replicating the stupidity of the old monopoly telecomm system, and preventing all but the elites of various nations from reaching one another.
As Mueller notes, this did not have to happen. And once it happens, its effect cannot be reversed.