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.
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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
security services and communications ministries have gone to
extraordinary efforts to extend their existing media policies to
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
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
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
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.
regulatory reach of governments in this way raises a number of
troubling problems. The unresolved issues include:
international regulation over the Internet be implemented without
an elaborate legal and institutional framework to establish
How would the
proposed bureaucratic authority would be checked and balanced
against the rights of Internet users?
jurisdiction and standards would govern the international
authority be able to levy fees and taxes, and who would control
authority would serve as a venue to arbitrate or enforce
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
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.
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