November 18, 2005

Freedom of the net is safe - for the time being

The outcome of the Internet Governance summit in Tunis was a compromise. Luckily for all users of the net, it was a compromise that left the management and administration of the Domain Name System in the hands of ICANN. This organization, though non-profit-making, international in its board and staff, and not heavy-handed in its control, seems to have acquired the aspect of the devil incarnate as far as the opposition to “American control of the net” is concerned.

The agreement in Tunisia calls on the UN to establish an Internet Governance Forum next year. One hundred countries have signed up to the agreement and expect the Forum eventually to yield some kind of an international bureaucracy to plague the net users, whether they be big business or individual bloggers.

So far, the forum, according to the agreement,

“would have no oversight function and would not replace existing arrangements, mechanisms, institutions and organizations”.

Furthermore, the new forum

“would have no involvement in day-to-day or technical operations of the Internet”.

The outcome of the Internet Governance summit in Tunis was a compromise. Luckily for all users of the net, it was a compromise that left the management and administration of the Domain Name System in the hands of ICANN. This organization, though non-profit-making, international in its board and staff, and not heavy-handed in its control, seems to have acquired the aspect of the devil incarnate as far as the opposition to “American control of the net” is concerned.

The agreement in Tunis calls on the UN to establish an Internet Governance Forum next year. One hundred countries have signed up to the agreement and expect the Forum eventually to yield some kind of an international bureaucracy to plague the net users, whether they be big business or individual bloggers.

So far, the forum, according to the agreement,

“would have no oversight function and would not replace existing arrangements, mechanisms, institutions and organizations”.

Furthermore, the new forum

“would have no involvement in day-to-day or technical operations of the Internet”.

This, as the Wall Street Journal Europe points out, is a victory for the American negotiators, supported as they were by certain allies, such as Canada and Australia. Britain, alas, as a member of the EU, who negotiated on our behalf, was on the side of the unholy alliance of tranzi regulators and tyrannical dictators, such as the Iranian mullahs, the Chinese party gerontocracy and, among others, President Mugabe. A truly wonderful line-up.

In a sense, it was appropriate that the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) should have taken place in Tunisia, a country with a particularly bad human rights record when it comes to journalists and, indeed, users of the net.

The aim of this Summit and, indeed, of the attempted power grab was supposed to be to overcome the digital divide between rich developed countries and others. But the digital divide, as we know, is between countries where people can use the internet freely and those where the government controls its use and punishes those who try to step outside that control. By a strange coincidence the impetus to move control of the internet from the USA to the UN came from the latter governments and has been, shamefully, supported by the EU, which speaks on Britain’s behalf.

According to the ISN Security Watch:

“The New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused the Tunisian government of detaining critical online writers and blocking websites that publish reports of human rights abuses in the country.

The group stressed that Tunisia had made some progress in increasing access to the internet over the past few years, lifting bans on some websites, but that it continued to flout its national and international legal commitments to free expression, the right to access information, and the right to privacy by censoring the internet. The group said the government was still imprisoning writers for expressing their views online, and imposing undue regulations on its Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and internet cafés.”

Entirely the right country in which the discussion about the digital divide should be taking place.

Interestingly, the Summit was opened by the President of Switzerland, who made the following apposite comments:

“It is, quite frankly, unacceptable for the United Nations to continue to include among its members states which imprison citizens for the sole reason that they have criticized their government on the Internet or in the media.”

How sad. Because, of course, we have to accept that state of affairs and it is that very United Nations that is claiming the right to take over and run the internet (as well as, if not better than the way they ran the oil-for-food programme).

While this was going on, the Tunisian police prevented a meeting of the Tunisian Civil Society summit and its spokesman’s attempt to describe the situation to ISN Security Watch by telephone was interrupted.

And just to demonstrate quite definitively what that digital divide is about

“Tests conducted between 2.30pm and 4.30pm using the 3S Global Net ISP found that the French and Arabic press releases for Human Rights Watch’s latest report on internet freedom in the Middle East were also blocked in Tunis.

Users trying to access these pages received a page disguised to look like a French-language Microsoft Internet Explorer error page that read “Impossible de trouver la page” (“Impossible to find the page”).

The results were consistent with the blocking behaviour exhibited in previous tests documented in a Human Rights Watch’s report.”

These are the people who are demanding that the terrible American “control” of the internet should cease and they are the ones with whom we, in Europe, line ourselves up.

So, what will the new forum be doing, assuming it will get past the inevitable international squabbles and behind-the-scene negotiations?

The WSJE expresses the very sensible opinion:

“As little as possible, one would hope. It would be most useful as a means of co-ordinating efforts to address such cyber crimes as e-mail fraud (also known as “phishing”) and cyber annoyances like spam.”

As the forum will be under UN auspices, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a remotely useful activity along the lines outlined above.

“Beyond that, it’s difficult to see how the forum differs significantly from ICANN’s existing Governmental Advisory Committee other than operating under the UN’s auspices. In this some participants – notably, the European Union – are inclined to see the birth of an entity that will evolve into ICANN’s successor.

Others, led by the US, are confident that a forum envisioned in Tunis as “lightweight and decentralized” will remain so. Businesses and other parties interested in a red-tape-free Internet must be vigilant to prevent the scenario preferred by Europeans from becoming reality.”

Indeed so. According to Deutsche Welle

“The agreement would lead to "further internationalization of Internet governance, and enhanced intergovernmental cooperation to this end," wrote the European Union in a statement.

"In the short term, US oversight is not immediately challenged," an EU source told Reuters. "But in the long term they are under obligation to negotiate with all the states about the future and evolution of Internet governance."”

In other words, they have not given up. Deutsche Welle itself snarls about “United States' single-handed control over the private body known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)”. Curiously, they omit to mention that no less a person than SecGen Kofi Annan, a man usually quoted with reverence by the European media, described the present arrangements as performing “fairly and adequately”.

And what has that to do with anything? What matters is that it should not be in American or more or less American hands. The Hamburger Abendblatt put it fatuously but threateningly:

“A world wide web should also be in the world's control -- not the only world power. The decision of what really happens in the Internet continues to be made by ICANN. It won't be long before the problem is once again on the agenda of a world summit.”

Well, we have all been warned. As abolitionist, orator and journalist Wendell Philips said: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” And that was before the United Nations or the European Union had even been heard of.

Cross-posted from EUReferendum

Posted by Helen Szamuely at November 18, 2005 12:20 PM
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