The question of whether the United Nations should govern the Internet is nothing new, nor is U.S. outspokenness against the idea. But a white paper released by the Chinese government has brought the question to the fore in a way that warrants a serious reassessment of the pros and cons of a U.N.-administered Internet.
The white paper, titled "The Internet in China," has drawn the attention of the media because of its defense of Internet censorship. A Voice of America article encapsulated the outcry we've heard from news outlets in the West:
There were no surprises in the Chinese government's new white paper, as it reiterated its determination to heavily censor Internet access in the world's most populous nation. It calls for other countries to respect its Internet laws, which it says are a matter of national sovereignty. China's communist leaders seem more than ever determined to control content for the country's estimated 400 million Internet users. The white paper issued Tuesday says censorship is "an indispensable requirement for protecting state security and the public interest." The country spends hundreds of millions of dollars to control the Internet. Its restrictive measures, known by some critics as the Great Firewall, are continually reviewed and upgraded.
Never mind that every country, including ours, calls for other countries to respect its Internet laws, which in every country is a matter of national sovereignty. What was particularly interesting about the VOA article was the contribution of Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders:
"China has been playing a leading role in defining Internet control with a lot of technical means and resources behind it, plus a lot of intimidation against net citizens. And this is a model that is being exported to different countries, which are following the Chinese model." Morillon says more pressure on Beijing is needed from the United Nations and the international community to allow greater Internet freedom. She says the World Trade Organization should also push Beijing to allow greater Internet freedom by applying economic pressure to do so.
Morillon is absolutely correct. But the irony here is that elsewhere in that same white paper, the Chinese government called for governance of the Internet under the auspices of the United Nations:
China holds that the role of the UN should be given full scope in international Internet administration. China supports the establishment of an authoritative and just international Internet administration organization under the UN system through democratic procedures on a worldwide scale. The fundamental resources of the Internet are vitally connected to the development and security of the Internet industry. China maintains that all countries have equal rights in participating in the administration of the fundamental international resources of the Internet, and a multilateral and transparent allocation system should be established on the basis of the current management mode, so as to allocate those resources in a rational way and to promote the balanced development of the global Internet industry.
So what's happening here is that we can see a need for the United Nations to exert its influence over China to allow for greater Internet freedom in that country, and yet we in this country are generally appalled by the idea of U.N. governance and administration of the Internet.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which has long battled against what it calls a "takeover" by the United Nations, finally broke free of U.S. government control last September. That move was widely seen outside of the U.S. as a positive step, as an article on Britain's guardian.co.uk suggested:
The deal, part of a contract negotiated with the U.S. Department of Commerce, effectively pushes California-based ICANN toward a new status as an international body with greater representation from companies and governments around the globe. ICANN had previously been operating under the auspices of the American government, which had control of the Net thanks to its initial role in developing the underlying technologies used for connecting computers together. But the fresh focus will give other countries a more prominent role in determining what takes place online, and even the way in which it happens-opening the door for a virtual United Nations, where many officials gather to discuss potential changes to the Internet.
The analogy of a "virtual United Nations" is one thing, but actually being replaced by the United Nations is the last thing ICANN wants. Just last month, Reuters reported that Rod Beckstrom, ICANN's president and CEO, was still arguing against ceding control to a global body such as the United Nations:
"If you think of that rate, or pace, in technology, it's just a lot more rapid than most traditional forms of policy development would be suited to," [Beckstrom said]. Multilateral state control could make ICANN less nimble, he said, and therefore less likely to quickly develop technologies like Arabic-language domain names that feed rapidly expanding Internet demand. "It's hard to imagine any replacement for [the current system], and I feel I can say that somewhat objectively because I've worked for government as well," he said, adding such a decision would be up to ICANN's board of directors.
That it's hard for ICANN-and for the U.S. government and populace, for that matter-to imagine any replacement for the current system is precisely the problem. We need to be willing to imagine a world in which an international governing body has the support of all nations to administer global affairs and interests, including the Internet. At present, the closest thing we have to that is the United Nations. Yes, it has its flaws, but those flaws can be rectified if we all start placing the interests of the global community ahead of the interests of any one nation. The United States, in its capacity as a global leader, should lead the way in advancing that cause.
The United Nations is absolutely the right body to turn to for help in persuading China and other countries to change their Internet policies and allow more freedom of access to information. But we need to be prepared to promote and support that body's wherewithal to effectively address matters of that nature, and to wield the authority to enforce its decisions. The international body that China wants to govern the Internet is the very body that's best positioned to compel countries like China and Iran to more closely conform with international norms with respect to Internet censorship. The sooner we understand that, the sooner the people of China will enjoy the freedoms we so strongly believe they should have.