For decades, the Internet has developed with a minimum of government interference. The core governance of the medium has been performed by non-governmental entities and overseen by the U.S. government, which has exercised a light regulatory touch. It is no coincidence that the medium has prospered from this benign neglect, growing from a research curiosity into a major force in the world economy and an invaluable venue for the exchange of information.
Most people appreciate this success as a convenience that makes their lives easier and their work more productive. However, the Internet represents something quite different to many foreign governments. Some, including members of the European Union, are frustrated by their inability to regulate or tax it as they desire. Others, such as China and Iran, see the Internet as a threat and are desperate to prevent their citizens from encountering ideas that might undermine their authority or communicating with foreigners. As a result, the United States is coming under increasing criticism that because the Internet is an international resource, no one country should control it.
The dispute will reach the boiling point at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia on November 16-18. A group of nations led by China, Brazil, India, Cuba, and Iran is expected to demand that supervision of the Internet be shifted from a private organization in the U.S. to the United Nations. WSIS will be a pivotal moment for the future prospects of economic and political freedom. Should the UN gain control of the Internet, it would give meddlesome governments the opportunity to censor and regulate the medium until its usefulness as a vehicle for freedom of expression and international competition is crippled.
The Bush Administration should be applauded for its strong opposition to this proposal, and it should stand firm at the upcoming summit. Congress has also taken note of this issue, and efforts that encourage the President to resist efforts to transfer Internet governance authority from the United States, like Sen. Norm Coleman's (R-MN) Senate Resolution 273, "Expressing the sense of the Senate that the United Nations and other international organizations shall not be allowed to exercise control over the Internet," deserve its support.
How is the Internet Governed?
Current oversight of the Internet is minimal. Operating under a contract from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) regulates and manages the Domain Name System (DNS) under which Internet Protocol addresses and registration of top-level domains like .org and .com are assigned.
While the U.S. government retains veto power over ICANN's decisions, the U.S. government has been very hands-off with managing ICANN. According to one expert, "Since funding the development of the internet in the 1960s, the U.S. government always maintained its claim to have the rights to oversee [the Internet]. Despite having a legal capacity to do so, the U.S. government never interfered in ICANN's operations and decisions."
ICANN has been called "a truly global organization" not representative of the interest of national governments. Its governance activities have been largely limited to the technical chores of maintaining a common addressing system for the Internet and ensuring that the networks that make up the Internet are able to exchange traffic. It has been impartial in managing its responsibilities and allowing registration of any domain name regardless of its political content.
Contrast the current approach with the much broader definition of "Internet governance" proposed by the UN's Working Group on Internet Governance. In a June report, it defined Internet governance as "the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution of the Internet."
This statement implies a much more expansive mission for governance authorities than has been exercised to date. Further, how are the "shared principles" underlying this expanded governance to be determined and who will determine them? Disturbingly, many of the nations pressing for this new kind of Internet governance constitute a rogues' gallery of repressive governments whose primary goal is censoring the Internet to keep their citizens from accessing material deemed threatening to their regimes. As well, they seek to use the medium to disseminate their repressive policies. Iran has been in the vanguard of this effort, and its other key supporters include Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, and Venezuela.
The UN Façade
In March 2005, China's ambassador to the UN criticized U.S. 'monopolization' of the current system stating, "We feel that the public policy issue of Internet should be solved jointly by the sovereign states in the UN framework."
If this sounds strangely familiar, it should. Nations threatened by freedom have long used the United Nations as a stalking horse for their ambitions to clamp down on freedom of expression. In the 1970s and 1980s, communist and developing nations sought to use the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to establish a "new world information order" (NWIO) to address an alleged pro-Western bias in global news organizations. NWIO sought to license journalists, create an international code of press ethics, and increase government control over the media. Ultimately, the effort to use UNESCO to constrain freedom of the press contributed to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the organization-a key factor in ending the NWIO effort. In the Internet age, it has become more difficult than ever to curtail the exchange of ideas and information, and this has made repressive regimes more desperate to expand their control over the Internet. They know that the best way to establish that control is through international bureaucracy.
It should surprise no one that China and Iran are among the most vocal proponents of dismantling the American "monopoly" on Internet governance. China's policy toward the Internet provides a chilling illustration of the country's intent.
The Chinese security services and communications ministries have gone to extraordinary efforts to extend their existing media policies to the web. In order to control what people can see on the Internet and filter out politically unorthodox websites, China has built what has been dubbed "the Great Firewall." China has also raised a 30,000-strong army of cyber police to "track, patrol, monitor, and block Web sites and e-mails it deems a threat to society." New regulations issued this past September call for news sites to "report news that is healthy and promotes economic and social progress." Meanwhile, Chinese Internet users who want to start blogs or websites or join online discussion groups must first register with the government and provide their real names and addresses, thereby making it "easier for the cyber police to monitor their activities on the Internet."
In addition to its domestic team of censors, China has reportedly employed the aid of large American technology companies such as Microsoft, Cisco, Google, and Yahoo! to provide technical assistance in setting up a censorship infrastructure. For instance, a Microsoft portal service in China is said to block "bloggers from posting politically sensitive words in Chinese,"including "democracy" and "freedom," and to bar mention of the Chinese yoga sect Falun Gong. By restricting free speech and public discourse domestically, China's version of the Internet "has some concerned that it has established a medium and new censoring tools that other countries can adopt."
China seeks the ability to restrict access to certain web sites, not only in China but across the entire world. As one commentator put it, "Suppose a democracy activist wants to register domain names like downwithchina.com. If China had a say in ICANN affairs, it could push to have such domain names prohibited."Currently, ICANN doesn't exercise such power, but would a UN-run system do so? Even if restrictions are not explicit, they could be imposed indirectly or covertly.
The European Union commissioner for Internet and media affairs, Viviane Reding, recently gave the effort to strip governance from the Internet from the U.S. greater momentum when she released the EU's own proposal for international governance, which has garnered strong support from China and Iran. Although countries like France and Germany are uncomfortable with their inability to police Internet-such as to prevent the purchase of Nazi paraphernalia-their interest in wresting governance from the U.S. is not based primarily on censorship. Instead, Europe is most interested efforts to regulate and tax Internet transactions. Thus, Reding proposed "the establishment of an arbitration and dispute resolution mechanism based on international law"-in other words, an international bureaucracy to assume governance of the Internet under the aegis of the UN. Indeed, this echoes the July report issued by the United Nations' Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) that also recommended a greater UN role.
Many nations have also expressed a desire to utilize this "resource" to supplement government revenues and finance international efforts, including funding for the UN and development assistance. Of late, proposals to tax the Internet have been put forth with increasing frequency in the UN, Europe, and the U.S.
Expanding the regulatory reach of governments in this way raises a number of troubling problems. The unresolved issues include:
How would international regulation over the Internet be implemented without an elaborate legal and institutional framework to establish rules?
How would the proposed bureaucratic authority would be checked and balanced against the rights of Internet users?
What legal jurisdiction and standards would govern the international bureaucracy?
Would the authority be able to levy fees and taxes, and who would control those revenues?
What judicial authority would serve as a venue to arbitrate or enforce disputes?
As noted by Constantin Gurdgiev, a research fellow at the Policy Institute at Dublin University and a director of the Open Republic Institute, "Currently, all actions by ICANN are subject to oversight within one of the most advanced court systems in the world-the State of California. The Brussels proposal will replace ICANN with an unaccountable and uncontrollable multinational bureaucracy [with] unlimited powers to regulate international and national commerce, research and freedom of speech at the hands of the new multinational authority."
The result of a UN-controlled and regulated Internet would be that non-democratic countries that oppose the right to free speech such as China and grasping, anti-market impulses like those of the European Union would have a greater voice in guiding the Internet in a direction away from "freedom, education, and innovation." If the Internet cannot be a government-free zone, it should be governed in a manner that minimizes restrictions rather than imposing international standards that restrict Internet freedom. Given the stakes, the U.S. must stand firm and reject efforts to internationalize governance of the Internet.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Thatcher Center on Freedom, John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, and James L. Gattuso is Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, Heritage interns James Chen and Jeffrey Tang contributed to the research for this paper.
Elliot Noss, "A Battle for the Soul of the Internet," CNet News, June 8, 2005, at http://news.com/A+battle+for+the+soul +of+the+Internet/2010-1071_3-5737647.html.
 "Report of the Working Group on Internet Governance," June 2005, at /static/reportimages/450C0570CA0EEDCDD33104DFD5A49758.pdf.
Declan McCullagh "Will the UN Run the
Internet?" CNet News, July 11, 2005, at
A survey conducted by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) has shown that "79.3 percent of China's 103 million Internet users read news online." See Sumner Lemon, "China Issues New Regulations for Internet News," IDG News Service, Sept 26 2005, at http://www.macworld.com/news/2005/09/26/china/index.php.
See Sumner Lemon, "China Issues New
Regulations for Internet News," IDG News Service, Sept 26, 2005, at
See Kathleen E. McLaughlin, "China's
Model for a Censored Internet," the Christian Science
Monitor, Sept 22, 2005, at http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0922/p01s02-woap.html;
and Mure Dickie, "Don't mention democracy, Microsoft tells China
web users," Financial Times, June 11, 2005, p. 6, at
See Kathleen E. McLaughlin, "China's Model for a Censored Internet," the Christian Science Monitor, Sept 22, 2005, at http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0922/p01s02-woap.html.
Hiawatha Bray, "Don't Give UN Control
Over Internet," Boston Globe, Oct 17, 2005, at
Several nations have proposed new
mandates for "consumer protection" on the Internet, for granting
national and international authorities authority to levy taxes on
domain names to subsidize Internet access in poor nations, for
imposing taxes on Internet e-mail, and for folding ICANN into the
International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency. See Declan
McCullagh, "Will the U.N. run the Internet?" CNet News, July 11,
2010-1071_3-5780157.html?tag=nl; and Declan McCullagh, "Senator: Keep U.N. away from the Internet," CNET News.com, October 18, 2005, at http://news.com.com/Senator+Keep+U.N.+
Elliot Noss, "A Battle for the Soul of
the Internet," CNet News, June 8, 2005, at
See also Adam Thierer and Wayne Crews, "The World Wide Web (of Bureaucrats)," The Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2005; and Carl Bildt, "Keep the Internet Free," International Herald Tribune, October 11, 2005.