U.N. Internet Takeover

by on March 26th, 2004

If you are reading this you are likely someone who values the internet as a source of news, information and commentary. You probably value the free exchange of ideas – often hotly debated – in forums such as this one. You probably also value having virtually every possible item manufactured for sale available at your fingertips.

You probably also like that by and large the internet has become what it is because its what the people who use the internet want it to be. There was, for instance, no governing authority who handed down a rule that there should be weblogs. Users wanted a way to express themselves in whatever way and on whatever topic they chose, so the “Blogosphere” came into being. The internet as it exists was not drawn up as a master plan – it evolved. Today the future of this evolution faces a very serious threat – The United Nations.

At a recent U.N. summit on expanding the organization’s role in the internet the main focus seemed to be how to reduce U.S. domination of internet technology.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan set the tone in a speech Thursday, criticizing the current system through which Internet standards are set and domain names are handled, a process currently dominated by the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. Such structures “must be made accessible and responsive to the needs of all the world’s people,” Annan said.

Somehow it is offensive to Annan that the richest and most technologically advanced countries have an advantage in managing the technology standards of the internet than those less advanced. According to Internet World Stats.com the U.S. has 199,096,845 internet users which represents 67.6% of the U.S. population and 26.9% of all internet users world wide. The next highest country is China with 79,500,000 internet users or 6.0% of the population and 10.7% of worldwide users. (data as of March 19, 2004) With user driven evolution as the driving force “designing” the internet – wouldn’t it make sense that the U.S. has the lead role?

But then this is not really about fairness or even about the internet for many of the summit delegates there is one overriding concern – money.

Dozens of delegates from developing nations echoed Annan’s remarks throughout the rest of the day, arguing that their governments do not have a voice in the way the Internet is operated and that more money and investment from richer nations is the only way to end the so-called digital divide.

None of this new though. The United Nations had been trying to collect on the internet for quite some time. In 1999 a U.N. proposed tax on e-mail was quickly squashed by U.S. action.

There is an urgent need to find the resources to fund the global communications revolution to ensure that it is truly global. The costs for users would be negligible: Sending 100 e-mails a day, each containing a 10-kilobyte document (a very long one), would raise a tax of just 1 cent.

I think the fact that even in 1999 someone at the U.N. considered 10k a “very long document” pretty much disqualifies them from having any role in regulating the internet.

The U.N. attempts to get control of portions of the internet is not without its opponents.

“There are many existing players in the Internet space,” ICANN Chair Vint Cerf said at the summit. “We should build on the foundation that they have created. Engineers have a saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'”

The internet is place where those who live free can go where they want, see what they want, and say what they want. But more importantly it can provide many of those same opportunities to those who do not live free. The internet did not become what it is today based on the grand design of central controlling authority. It freely became what it’s users want it to be. It should be left free. Keep the U.N. off the internet.

Stephen Macklin