Dangers of World Internet Governance – Lessons from the Proposed Domain for Adult Content

by on August 19, 2005

The recent decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to delay deciding whether to approve the .xxx top-level domain signals what could be yet another debate about “indecency” over communication networks. This time, it’s about the structure and content of the Internet, not the broadcast airwaves. And because it’s the Internet that will be impacted by debate concerning “indecent” content, international sovereignty and cultural integrity is at stake. The fear is that supposedly independent technical standards bodies will be hijacked by governments wanting to restrict the free flow of content.

But the U.S. is not alone in its apprehension over what it considers to be illegitimate content. Brazil and France were worried about a .xxx TLD. Indeed, Internet communications spill over national borders, connecting and uniting people everywhere. Other countries fear that cultural fragmentation and the violation of national sovereignty will result from increased interconnection.

The World Society of the Information Summit (WSIS – pronounced Wiss Iss) will hold a meeting this November. And on the verge of it governance policy issues are heating up, and as I say in my recent C:\Spin policy article, ICANN and other Internet governance bodies should have accountability, but not necessarily political accountability to the U.S. or UN. These organizations have a role in deciding on the technical specifications that will encourage the free exchange of information, not limit it.

ICANN Should Not be a Political Pawn

ICANN-a longstanding player in the Internet governance debate-has been in charge of assigning all domain names and country codes though the Domain Name System (DNS) since its creation by the US in 1998. It was created upon recognition that the Internet would best be governed by an independent, nongovernmental organization, free of politicized demands.

Yet, on June 30 the U.S. ruffled feathers in the Internet governance community when it stated its intent to maintain control of ICANN and the DNS. In a controversial “Declaration of Principles,” the US argued that in order to preserve the “security and stability” of the Internet and the economic transactions that take place on it, it would exercise unilateral control over the DNS. And on August 11, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce Michael Gallagher sent a letter to ICANN board member Vinton Cerf. The letter stated that the Department of Commerce had received nearly 6,000 letters and e-mail messages expressing concerns about the impact of the new domain on children and families, and it requested a delay in voting on the matter. As a result, ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee recommended that there should be more time for additional governmental and public policy concerns to be expressed before reaching a final decision on .xxx.

International Internet Governance Bodies Should not Control Culture

For years, most debate was limited to the DNS and ICANN. However, in December 2003 the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a United Nations group that studies technological development, created the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG). Leaders at the summit created WGIG because they saw the Internet as a vital part of the growing information society and noticed there was broad range of opinions as to how the Internet should be managed in a global society. Upon its creation, WGIG was charged with creating a working definition of Internet governance.

While the WSIS has attempted to increase global access to technology, it has simultaneously undermined the benefits these technologies have to offer by calling for what is essentially “cultural protectionism.”

Acting, in large part, on fears of “cultural imperialism,” WSIS and other international organizations like UNESCO have launched massive campaigns to preserve cultural heritage. In attempting to preserve cultural identities, these organizations would face a Hayekian “knowledge problem” – they would have difficulty in choosing whose culture to preserve, what parts of that culture were worth preserving, and at what expense culture should be preserved.

This notion of “preserving a culture” wrongly assumes that culture is a single, discrete entity that can be protected the same way a mother bird protects her young. In the globalized 21st century, however, cultures are mutable, shifting, and constantly interacting. Those who fear Western culture imposing itself on the developing world through technological development often forget that “Western” culture is not monolithic, but rather a rich, diverse tapestry of many different cultures. The world has become increasingly better off because of the free flow of cultures.

Attempts to “preserve” cultures will limit the use of new technologies and artificially cut off the developing world from this robust cultural exchange.

The Problem of State-Sponsored Filtering

Even more alarming than its mission to preserve cultures is WSIS and WGIG’s failure to address the issue of countries that block access to certain Web sites. Currently, many national governments, from China to Saudi Arabia, use filtering technology to prevent their citizens from navigating the Web freely.

What kinds of sites are filtered? Pornography, gay and lesbian sites, women’s rights organizations, sex education and other public health sites, anonymizers (which allow users to hide their identities online), and certain political and religious groups are all subject to filtering in different countries.

Not only are many people deprived access to certain information online, but in most cases, they are oblivious to this fact. The OpenNet Initiative, a partnership between Harvard, Cambridge, and the University of Toronto studies freedom of information on the Internet. And off all the nations the group has studied, not one of them made its block list available to the public.

WSIS argues that one of the benefits of technological development will be better “e-government,” or more “transparency in public administrations and democratic processes.” This is certainly one of the many benefits of providing access to technology, but it will be negated unless WGIG and other international groups take a stand against state-sponsored filtering.

A top-down dictum that all nations stop filtering is not the best solution. It is important that solutions to the problem of national filtering are sympathetic to every nation’s rule of law. For example, if a specific Web site violates already-extant national laws, that content may be filtered. But this should not stop the fight against arbitrary filtering, which is an essential part of making technological access meaningful and democratic.

Public Input is Good, Political Pressure is Bad

The debate over the triple x domain involves legitimate debate that should be in the public discourse. Will it merely be a location for pornography that establishes a virtual red light district, much like those in the physical world, where you can visit if you’d like but stay out if you want? Is it the precursor toward a requirement that all porn be identified by .xxx?

But the point is this: political pressure is unlike that of normal public discourse. Political bodies exert influence beyond that of any nonprofit public interest group. Indeed, because they have the power of law by their side, they wield power beyond that of all interest groups combined.

ICANN and other Internet governance bodies should have accountability, but not necessarily political accountability to the U.S. or UN. These organizations have a role in deciding on the technical specifications that will encourage the free exchange of information, not limit it.

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