by Larry Smith
The Internet was under attack last week by hordes of politicos camped in Tunisia for the United Nations-sponsored World Information Summit.
Their attack was launched two years ago, when 175 countries agreed to build “a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented (global) Information Society.”
Their plan called for implementation of e-government, e-business, e-learning and e-health services, among other initiatives, around the world.
You might not know it, but our government published an e-commerce policy five years ago, and by next year we may have real government services online, like business and driver’s licenses. We are ahead of some countries, but way behind many.
While bridging the digital divide sounds wonderful, the real issue at last week’s conference was internet governance. The gloriously democratic World Wide Web is threatened with a takeover by a bunch of politically-directed bureaucrats whose first thought will be censorship.
For the time being at least, that fear has been averted by a compromise that leaves the status quo largely intact. But this argument is not going to die soon. And it could lead to a fragmentation of the Internet – one of the transforming technologies of our time – into a babble of multiple private networks.
As one Indian writer recently noted, “most nations are united and clear that they want multilateral control of the internet and not be dominated just by the US.” His comments represent a group that includes countries like Cuba, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and France.
What are they talking about? Well, the internet is actually a gift of the American military-industrial complex - the direct descendent of a Pentagon research network that linked a handful of computers in labs around the US from 1969 onwards.
As the Net grew and became more commercial, the Internet Society was formed to act as an international coordinating body. But the master directory of internet addresses is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This American non-profit allocates the dot-com or dot-net designations for Web sites and the country codes like .bs that are attached to emails.
ICANN was created in 1998, when the US government handed over management of the domain name system on a contract basis. And since ICANN is still theoretically controlled by the US government, other countries like to condemn this “imbalance of authority” over a critical global infrastructure. Although no-one claims any unfair behaviour so far, they are afraid the Americans may restrict internet access in the future.
So they want the UN to set up a new intergovernmental authority. And many of the thousands of politicians and bureaucrats at last week’s summit in Tunisia saw internet governance as the main agenda:
“The international management of the Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organisations,” they declared.
And it does sound reasonable - until you think about what a corrupt UN agency with Cuban, Iranian, Chinese and Saudi Arabian representatives (among others) could do to shackle the Web.
“Do we really want countries that censor the internet and throw its users in prison to be in charge of regulating the flow of information on it?” the independent media group Reporters Without Frontiers asked recently.
In addition to providing a cover to restrict content, international oversight could lead to a politicisation of technical decisions and the stifling of innovation. And some experts predict that two or more root file systems will eventually emerge as a result of US unwillingness to relinquish control.
In the worst-case scenario, these networks may not work well together and that could lead to "a breakdown in global data communications as we know them today."
Many experts argue that the real issue is not who regulates the internet, but to what purpose. According to Columbia University professor Eli Noam, nations “can restrict their internet media and many do so, including the summit’s host country, Tunisia. But the internet offers a loophole: content can be readily provided from across borders.
“The closing of that loophole by firewalls could be legitimised by the rules of an international regulator. So the stakes in the debate are much higher than Web address systems. For this reason it is important that any international internet regulation be based in advance on constitution-like
For a real-life Bahamian example of this threat (though referring to older technology) we have only to go back a few years to when the opposition Free National Movement had to transmit its election messages from Florida radio stations because of unfair political controls over broadcasting
by the governing Progressive Liberal party.
But the breakup of the internet, though possible, is not yet imminent. The summit created a new forum to address governance issues, and called for “enhanced cooperation”. But gvernments were excluded from involvement in the day-to-day running and technical operation of the internet. That means ICANN will continue to oversee the domain name system, free of international bureaucratic oversight, for the time being.
Government licensing and control of the internet is something to be avoided at all cost. Imagine what it would be like if we had to apply to a Bahamian government agency to set up a Web site or acquire a domain name? Well, we can tell you what it would be like.
Back in the day, the College of The Bahamas owned the top level .bs domain for the country and the registration agent was a state monopoly called BaTelCo. In 1998, a Bahamian internet pioneer named Brian Nutt applied and paid for, through BaTelCo, a Bahamian internet domain name with the goal of creating a Web community. After eight weeks of being stonewalled he withdrew the request, and was able to register online with the extension .net within 48 hours.
“After applying for a Bahamian domain name without result, I wrote a three-page letter to the then deputy prime minister making some recommendations,” Mr Nutt recalled.
“I said we were forfeiting our internet presence. Not only was this letter never replied to, there wasn't even an acknowledgement of receipt.”