Developing nations will have to fight for Internet rights: study
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: The phenomenal rise of the Internet has pitched developing countries against Western states, led by the United States, because while the former want the new medium to be internationally controlled, the latter want it in private hands.
In a research study, Pakistani-American academic and Internet expert Imran Chaudhry of George Mason University notes that several private organisations currently run the web, including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The role of these three organisations is now under global review, under the auspices of the United Nations, to determine what steps may be deemed appropriate to oversee, regulate or govern the Internet. The real issue is whether Internet decision-making should be taken away from largely private management and entrusted to the United Nations. At the two-day ‘Global Forum on Internet Governance’ hosted by the United Nations, more than 200 representatives from government, the private sector and civil society debated issues such as regulation and transparency, and how to balance those with innovation in expanding the uses of the Internet. The findings and recommendations of this forum will be presented at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in 2005.
The writer points out that many developing countries want governments to play a larger role in what appears on the Internet through the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency. The world’s richer nations want to preserve the status quo. Some in the private sector fear increased government involvement could slow innovation and lead to more red tape. The US opposes new, international controls for the Internet. Washington and other developed countries feel it is imperative that web governance remains under the ambit of the private sector and is not transferred to the United Nations as proposed by countries such as China and Brazil. Calls for “international rules” overseen by the UN to govern the web must cover technical questions, such as the attribution of web addresses and management of domain names, as well as the protection of intellectual property.
Chaudhry writes that developing nations favour UN regulation simply because as member states, they would have greater input and influence than they do now over the future evolution of the Internet. Developed nations, on the other hand, may feel that opening the door to greater input from the technology have-nots may adversely affect the codes of international conduct already in place. The US, as a premier current-day international innovator, would see a decrease in its influence if Internet regulation was taken up by a UN-sanctioned or administered body. Countries such as France however, which are now starting to play a greater role on the international stage, do not wish to be eclipsed by other global powerhouses and thus are more inclined to support measures that place checks on the exertion of influence by single states.
Chaudhry writes, “It would be foolhardy and unrealistic to assume that the US would not continue to play a major role in the future governance of the Internet. Given its historical placement as the initial designer of this network, it took the lead by creating ICAAN in the first place. Other nations simply missed the boat and in that sense, I believe there is a catch-up mentality on the part of other countries. The US alone has approximately 50 percent of generic top-level domains and the next closest entrant has less than 10 percent. Given its present global presence, it seems implausible the US would cede any ground to a UN-sponsored regulatory body. In that sense, it is possible that the current debate may be an exercise in futility, because no matter what ultimate proposals are presented in 2005 to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, they will be subject to de facto US veto.”
He believes that organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union must provide leadership so that all views are aired and in the process, regulatory standards are implemented that provide as level a future playing field as possible. The Internet, he points out, by its very design is a boundary-less creation. Any long-term attempts to regulate it must keep this in mind, because this entity is not subject to geographical territory. This added dimension presents a challenge because it will pose difficulties with competing legal jurisdictions. He suggests that the UN may wish to consider the formation of an Internet conflict-resolution body whose impartiality can be ensured if it is fostered by the UN. There will have to be common agreement on what constitutes “regulation”. The Association For Progressive Communications, he points out, has drafted an Internet Rights Charter which contains the right to communicate; the right to freedom of expression and information exchange; diversity, ownership and control of content; privacy; free/open sourceware, technology development and intellectual property rights; global, regional and national governance of the Internet; and awareness, protection and realisation of rights.
According to Chaudhry, “Cyberspace currently resembles the ocean; it is a vast, open space that nobody really controls. Like the ocean, it is a resource that provides private individuals and corporations of all nations, access to information, and local, regional and global markets. What we are going through right now is a natural evolution in determining how this resource can be best utilised by all. There are competing views and opposing players or blocs of players. The best (and perhaps only practical) solution may be a middle of the road or multi-factoral approach.”
He writes, “I feel that with checks and balances, the Internet governance issue may be amicably resolved. If more invasive attempts are made, the amorphous nature of the Internet will resist such changes with the overall result that nothing will be achieved in terms of the global public good. After all, if we are all to gain benefit from the Internet, we all have to be involved in its future development.”