Developing Nations Want Internet Brought Under UN Control

Daily News Article   —   Posted on September 29, 2005

(by Patrick Goodenough, Sept. 29, 2005, – The politically charged question of who will control the Internet in the future is dominating preparatory talks ahead of a global Internet summit.

At the same time, a controversy over the choice of a host nation for the November gathering has focused attention on autocratic regimes’ attempts to clamp down on the medium.

The U.N.-organized World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is to be hosted by Tunisia despite campaigners’ accusations of press freedom violations in the North African Muslim state.

Rights groups have recorded violations in Tunisia including the blocking of websites and police monitoring of cyber cafes – the very type of behavior that makes them nervous about allowing rights-abusing governments, through the U.N., to have a say in future Internet policy.

Historically, the U.S. has overseen the Internet. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, set up under the U.S. Commerce Department, deals with such matters as assigning top-level and specific domain names and IP addresses.

Washington argues that while improvements in technical efficiency and transparency can be discussed, U.S. management of the Internet has been successful.

“The existing structures have worked effectively to make the Internet the highly robust and geographically diverse medium that it is today,” the State Department’s bureau of economic and business affairs said in a recent report. “The security and stability of the Internet must be maintained.”

But developing nations, led by Brazil and Iran and supported by China, Cuba and others, are pressing for effective U.N. control.

At preparatory talks currently underway in Geneva, countries are broadly split between Western countries supportive of existing institutions, and developing nations wanting to end U.S. control – a situation the Chinese envoy called “undemocratic, unfair and unreasonable.”

The latter group was boosted when the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), a body set up to make proposals ahead of November’s summit, stated in a report that “no single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international Internet governance.”

The group suggested several possible models, including a Global Internet Council “anchored in the United Nations.”

Such a body, “consisting of members from governments with appropriate representation from each region … would take over the functions relating to international Internet governance currently performed by the Department of Commerce of the United States government,” said the WGIG report, released in July.

Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who has delved into U.N. corruption, responded at the time by saying that “putting the U.N. in charge of one of the world’s most important technological wonders and economic engines is out of the question.”

“This proposal would leave the United States with no more say over the future of the Internet than Cuba or China – countries that have little or no commitment to the free flow of information,” he said in a statement.

‘Beyond comprehension’

Beijing is a leading proponent of U.N. supervision of the Internet. At a WGIG meeting in Geneva last June, the Chinese representative said: “We feel that the public policy issue of Internet should be solved jointly by the sovereign states in the U.N. framework.”

“Where Internet resources now are managed by one government, in future it should be jointly managed by all governments,” the envoy said.

But human rights campaigners worry about countries like China being involved in setting future Internet policy.

Reporters Without Frontiers, a media freedom watchdog, says China oversees the most far-reaching system of Internet censorship and email surveillance anywhere, and is also “the world’s biggest prison for cyber-dissidents,” more than 60 of whom are in jail.

Just this week China announced rules aimed at ensuring that online news sites only carry approved news.

Tunisia is another country where rights groups say press freedoms have deteriorated, and critics see in its choice as host country for the Internet summit an echo of Libya’s 2003 selection to chair the U.N. Commission on Human Rights – another reason why the U.N. should not be given oversight of the Internet.

Reporters Without Borders said in a statement the U.N. decision to allow “a country that imprisons people for using the Internet [to host the summit] … is beyond comprehension.”

In a report released this week, a coalition of 14 media NGOs said Tunisia was unfit to hold the summit, accusing the government of taking steps aimed at stifling dissent ahead of the event.

They cited reports of a clampdown on the press and civil society, including the jailing of a human rights lawyer for posting critical comments online. Mohamed Abbou was sentenced to three and a half years’ imprisonment for “incitement of the population to infringe the laws,” they said.

Tunisia on Wednesday dismissed the report as “biased and inaccurate.”

“Freedom of the Internet is a global challenge, that’s why we are concerned about what will happen in November in Tunis,” Vincent Brossel of Reporters Without Frontiers told Cybercast News Service from Paris earlier.

“If countries like China manage to get the Internet in their hands it will change absolutely all the rules,” he said. “It’s quite scary.”

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