Could the United Nations squelch freedom on the Internet?


Activists expressed concern this week that several United Nations proposals to regulate the Internet would undermine freedom and give too much control over the World Wide Web.United Nations flag

Proposals to centralize Internet regulation will be discussed at the two upcoming U.N. winter conferences — the Internet Governance Forum in November and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) meeting in December.

But panelists at “Clear and Present Danger: Attempts to Change Internet Governance and Implications for Press Freedom,” a National Endowment for Democracy forum in Washington argued for maintaining a more decentralized Internet.

“We see the potential to shift Internet governance away from the multi-state model and toward the more government-controlled. Advocates and activists must remain alert,” said panelist Emma Llansó, policy counsel of Center for Democracy and Technology.

Currently, the Internet is managed by several organizations under a global system. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, currently assigns IP addresses, as well as maintains the domain name system registry of the Internet. It also comprises private corporations, governments, and non-profit organizations all over the world to run the Internet. Created in 1998, ICANN oversees Internet-related tasks that used to be directly handled by the U.S. government.

One reason that some activists are suspicious of proposals to turn management of the Web over to the U.N.: The presence, as permanent members of the international body's security council, of China and Russia. One of the plans set for discussion this winter is the International Code of Conduct for Information Security, submitted by China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at last September's General Assembly. The countries claim their aim is to counter the dominant role the United States government plays in web policy and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, as they try to curb the dissemination of information to criminals and terrorists.

Critics have their doubts.

“The language clearly has implications on freedom of information…including freedom of speech,” said Llansó.

According to Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalist who wrote Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, ITU and ICANN’s struggle to control the Internet is nothing new.

“Before ICANN was formed, the ITU was trying to establish itself as the body that coordinated IP addressing and domain name system. Then ICANN was set up as the multi-state body in response to ITU’s bid to control this,” said MacKinnon, who was CNN’s former bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo. “It went on again between 2002 and 2005…There was a bid by Brazil, China, Russia, Iran and, also, the European Commission…to basically move ICANN’s functions under the ITU.”

Katitza Rodriguez, the international rights director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that an ITU-run Internet would also be problematic because “it is very secretive.”

“[The organization] charges prohibitive fees for access to decision makers and documents,” she said. “It’s a top-down approach.”

Meanwhile, some members of Congress have been urging President Barack Obama to oppose efforts to bring the Internet under the aegis of the U.N. Last week, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted on a resolution urging the White House to keep the Internet “free from international regulation and that the United States should continue its commitment to the current ‘multi-stakeholder’ model of governance.”

Although ICANN claims to have a multi-national membership, MacKinnon acknowledged that it needs more representatives from developing countries who are most affected by restrictions on freedom of information.

“[Other countries] look at ICANN, and they see a lot of Western white guys, frankly, who don’t have the cultural background and understanding of the issues faced by Internet users in the developing world,” she said. “There is a real challenge in making sure that ICANN is as diverse as the world of Internet users. Part of this is that technological communities in the developing world, or in quasi-authoritian societies, don't even realize that they have the right to participate in ICANN because they are just not completely aware. There hasn't been much outreach."

Photo credit: The United Nations