Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2003 / 15 Kislev, 5764

Ann Huggett

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Big Brother wants your Internet | Even if Al Gore invented the Internet, leave it to the United Nations to really screw it up. Today, more than 6,000 delegates representing 61 states and government organizations are converging on Geneva for the World Summit on the Information Society.

The supposed goal of the summit is to help people in poor nations get online. According to U.N. apparatchiks, "knowledge and information should be easily accessible to all ... the marginalized, unemployed, underprivileged, disenfranchised peoples, children, the elderly, the disabled, indigenous peoples and those with special needs."

It's really wonderful that the United Nations wants to help one-armed chicken farmers in Bangladesh surf the Web. But maybe these sanctimonious bureaucrats should focus on more pressing issues - like providing plumbing, electricity and medicine - before obsessing over whether malnourished children in Ethiopia have DSL access.

Besides, the only Macintosh a starving North Korean wants to see is the bright red fruit. And what good does a flat-panel monitor do if reading the opinions expressed thereon gets you hanged from the nearest apple tree?

As with most U.N. summits, there is a dark side to this all-expenses-paid cocktail party in Geneva. Countries like China, Egypt, Syria and Vietnam are lobbying hard to wrest control of the Internet from the United States.

Right now, the closest thing to an Internet governing body is a small U.S. organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN was created by the Department of Commerce in 1998. It is run as a semi-private, non-profit with a government-mandate to oversee technical issues and other details - such as making sure there are enough Web-site addresses available.

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As the gatekeeper of cyberspace, ICANN is far from perfect. The tech magazine eWeek writes that "bureaucracy and secrecy have long been the organization's strong suits." But despite ICANN's weaknesses, giving U.N. bureaucrats the key to the Internet's chastity belt would be a certain disaster.

For starters, if the United Nations had to pass a simple resolution stating "the cyber-sky is blue," it would take three years and include a condemnation of Zionism. Getting scores of U.N. member states to agree on complex technical standards would be next to impossible.

But there's a much bigger problem with giving the United Nations regulatory control of the Internet.

Despite the sunny charm of countries like Cuba and Iran, the United Nations is populated with many despots who strive to censor anything that might enlighten their own people. They regard freedom of speech and individual rights - which are the life-blood of the Internet - with contempt. In some countries, sending the wrong e-mail can get you killed.

The United Nations gives legitimacy to these thuggish regimes. Syria has a coveted position on the U.N. Security Council. And Libya presides over the Commission on Human Rights.

These tyrannical regimes would love to regulate cyberspace through the United Nations. But the Internet doesn't need their help. It already works splendidly well. Indeed, for many of the world's oppressed people, the Internet is a source of liberation, where they can access uncensored information.

Although the Internet was born out of a U.S. military project to ensure reliable communications in the event of nuclear war, it has been nurtured in the public domain for over a decade. Without any guiding political hand, the Internet has changed the way we work and communicate.

Ruled largely by free-market forces, the Internet has become the miracle of our times. Sure, cyberspace has its problems. But if you think pop-up ads and spam are annoying, wait until China and Syria start meddling with your e-mail.

Ann Huggett is a senior analyst at the Digital Freedom Network, a non-profit human-rights organization based in Newark, N.J. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Ann Huggett