November 16, 2005

November 16, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

Protect the 'Net

For anyone who is even slightly computer adept, the Internet has changed our world in both amazing and frustrating ways. It has made our lives easier, more difficult and, it also seems, a lot busier. In other words, the Internet is mixed blessing, but, it has to be said, it is a blessing nonetheless.

This amazing resource has been, however, under attack. Anyone who cares needs to be aware of what happened at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis this week. The purpose of the meeting was to wrench stewardship of the Internet away from the United States and place it in the hands of the United Nations or associated international institutions, where governments like China and Iran would have a say in its governance. It would have been a disaster.

Fortunately, the assembly composed of governments as well as NGOs ended up accepting the status quo, even as they established a an informal "forum" for the discussion of further issues. We will still need to keep a vigilant eye on the proceedings of this forum, which has the potential to cause trouble down the road.

The Internet is the epitome of freedom. It is wild, unregulated and free flowing, like a vast ocean of connections ebbing and waning. Its lightning-fast spread and influence suggest a deep atavistic resonance, a human need to stay connected and the urge to for unrestrained exploration. In many parts of the world, it is a tool for the advance of free speech and for democracy.

Family and friends in far-away places stay in touch with ease. Information, goods, pictures, music and movies are traded with a speed unimaginable just a few years ago. Websites blossom and disappear. Bloggers challenge the conventions of the traditional news media. Dissidents in authoritarian countries can oppose their government as never before. From our homes or offices, we can access the span of human endeavor -- some parts good and some very bad -- anything from textual analysis of the Bible and world literature to pornography and terrorist propaganda.

Who but Americans could have come up with such a concept? Who but Americans could have resisted placing this incredible tool in the control of the government? Grumble as we may about Washington and its ways, a philosophy of limited government still keeps Americans grounded in the world or private enterprise. This is what makes the Internet what it is.

The Internet evolved out of a Pentagon research project in the 1960s. Until 1998, it was overseen almost entirely by just one man, Jon Postel a computer science professor at the University of Southern California. Since 1998, the Internet has been organized by a non-profit organization based in California with the acronym ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN manages the domain name system, the .org, .com, .gov, .net addresses, as well as all the country suffixes, serving as a clearinghouse for addresses.

The actual exchange of information takes place through a decentralized system of 13 technical centers or "root servers," a diverse lot located at universities, NASA, U.S. military, and non-profits. Ten of these root servers are in the United States. Stockholm, Amsterdam and Tokyo each have one. There is no central authority that controls the flow of all Internet traffic.

This free-wheeling state of affairs has developed strong opposition among governments that would like to control what information their citizens are allowed to access -- China, Iran, or Saudi Arabia come to mind - as it might lead to outbreaks of dissidence and even democracy. Others like the European Union and Canada are suspicious of anything controlled by Americans these days - even though it took American ingenuity to invent the Internet in the first place. And, of course, Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations never saw an institution he did not like and wanted to bring into the United Nations' clammy embrace.

Now, control of the Internet has been on the agenda of this semi-official World Summit on the Information Society since it's founding meeting in Geneva 2003. The U.S. government until recently played along, but in June of this year reversed its position in a brief statement issued by the Department of Commerce. The United States, it said, has no intention of giving up the Internet to the control of the United Nations or any other international institution.

Undoubtedly, this position will probably remain controversial, but it is the right one. What others should grasp - and many fortunately have -- is that this remarkable tool thrives under the current system of benign neglect. Preserving its relatively unregulated nature is the best thing we can do for the free flow of information worldwide.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in The Washington Times