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The UNternet

By Keith D. Cummings
web posted October 24, 2005

There's something afoot in the corridors of power that isn't getting the level of national media coverage it deserves. In fact, while a few stories are appearing below the fold on newspapers, and some pundits have picked up on it on the net, it's still flying under the radar. What is it? It's the United Nations Working Group on Internet Governance. That's right, the UN, the people who brought you Libya and Cuba on the Human Rights Commission now wants to give Cuba and China a voice in the use of the Internet.

Ignoring for a moment that China and Cuba already have despicable policies on the Internet (can you even access the Internet in Cuba?) China routinely blocks any type of political speech website from coming within their borders. You can be sure, if I used Babelfish to translate this into Mandarin, no Chinese would read it. The very nature of these repressive regimes is completely contrary to the nature of the 'Net.

Defenders of the plan say things like, "why shouldn't other countries have a say in the control of the Internet?" There are two simple reasons: First, the very nature of the Internet is contrary to the way some nations treat their people and their politics. Second, the Internet is an American invention, of a uniquely American character and is best protected under exclusively American control.

Many people like to claim that the United States is not responsible (or to a lesser degree not solely responsible) for the Internet. In spite of claims we've heard on TV news and even in popular novels, the Internet was not created by CERN in Switzerland, by aliens from Venus or even by Al Gore (we've determined that he's not an alien from Venus, right?).

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, a branch of the United States Department of Defense developed the Internet in the 1960's. Sure, Dan Brown told us that CERN invented it and only let's Americans think they did, but heck, in the same novel, Dan Brown had a guy survive a fall from a helicopter over Rome with only a tweed jacket to use as a parachute!

No, the Internet is an American creation and, even more significant, Americans are doing a fine job of managing it. In the last decade, since a couple of college kids developed Mosaic, the forerunner to Netscape and Internet Explorer, there has been an information explosion on the web. From families sharing recipes and photographs from across the country, to kids using cryptic codes to chat online, to bloggers and pundits posting their opinions about the UN taking control of the Internet, it has been a remarkably smooth and trouble-free expansion.

Opponents of American control have several motivations for their desire to move regulation to the world body that turned a blind eye to genocide in Rwanda. Dictatorships like Iran, Syria and China would like nothing more than to shut down domains that carry political speech. It's unlikely that Fidel Castro is eager for more of his people to see how their countrymen are flourishing in South Florida and throughout the United States.

Others claim that ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, with its relative independence from government interference, has made missteps. Often cited is the 2004 plan by ICANN to introduce an .xxx domain for "adult content" websites. The Bush Administration was shocked an appalled by this plan, but their reasons for it seem odd.

The Administration, opponents of ICANN and anti-pornography groups attacked this plan as "legitimizing" the use of the Internet for pornographic uses. Apparently none of these people has an e-mail address, because for more than a decade more than half of the e-mail I receive is solicitations to some pornographic website.

In contrast, "adult content" companies, Internet filter services like CyberWatch and NetNanny and even many religious conservative groups supported the plan. A fixed domain for adult content on the web would have made it easier for parents and individuals to block spam, pop-up ads and traffic to inappropriate websites. The key is: the user would determine what would was or wasn't appropriate.

The Internet is a uniquely American invention because it reflects a uniquely American character. Domain name registration is so inexpensive that nearly anyone, certainly anyone with a computer, can have his own space on the web. I created a weblog called "The Five Brothers Blog" in about five minutes and it didn't cost me a cent.

With more money and time, bigger, better and more original content can be set up for all of the world to see. You can share your grandmother's cookie recipe or the story of your great-grandfather's struggle to get to this country with anyone who cares to hear. No one can tell you what you can publish, but there's no guarantee anyone will want to read. Still, the freedom of the Internet reflects, perhaps even exceeds, the freedoms in America today.

Now, the UN wants to let the repressive regimes of the world decide who can publish online and what they can say. If the United States allows this corrupt and ineffectual world body take control of the greatest tool of free expression ever know, what's next? Once the UN is emboldened, why should they stop at the Internet? Why not other private enterprises?

Regardless of your opinion of the United Nations itself, it's clear than any plan to increase control over the Internet is a bad idea. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, just imagine what an Internet controlled by a UN committee would be like. It's a scarier vision than Al and Tipper Gore kissing!

Keith D. Cummings is the author of Opening Bell, a political thriller. His website is www.keith-cummings.com.

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