- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Groups working to maintain the structure of cyberspace said giving the United Nations oversight of the Internet is a frightening proposition, particularly if the world body is pressured by some countries to regulate online content.

Developing nations, including Brazil, China and India, are pushing for the United Nations or one of its bodies to regulate the Internet, perhaps as soon as 2005. Diplomats from more than 60 countries plan to take up the issue at the U.N. World Information Summit in Geneva next month and have said they hope for an agreement by 2005.

At issue are the operations currently run by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California group that assigns Internet protocol addresses and oversees major domains, including .com, .net and .org. The group also helps set technical rules for how the Internet will operate. Developing nations said their interests would be better served if the Internet were managed by an intergovernmental group, such as the United Nations or one of its arms.

But ICANN and its supporters said that if a governmental body were to take on a regulatory role, it might politicize technical decisions to keep in line with some nations’ laws governing free speech. China, Saudi Arabia and other nations already restrict online content within their borders.

“If you go to the U.N., you might get the lowest common denominator instead of the highest common denominator, and before you know it, you’re restricted in terms of what content you can put online,” said Diane Cabell, a director at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Critics of ICANN say the group is too attached to the United States and the citizens of developed nations, who make up the majority of the Internet community. But ICANN President and CEO Paul Twomey said the group constantly is working to improve the Internet for developing nations and closing what U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called the “digital divide.” He noted that ICANN’s directors hail from five different geographical zones.

“Sometimes there’s this perception that we’re an American corporation, but we’re not,” Mr. Twomey said in an interview from his office in Australia.

ICANN supporters said they prefer the current system, where rules of the Internet are tested and approved by a community of people with technical knowledge.

“The Internet has been a partnership between the engineering and technical community, the business community and governments,” Mr. Twomey said. “At the heart, it’s been a partnership. Our key message has been that we don’t want to make one stakeholder more powerful than any other.”

The arguments defending free speech on the Internet have rung hollow for many U.N. supporters, who view the rising amount of junk e-mail, viruses and online identity theft as proof that the current system of Internet management has not worked.

But opponents of U.N. intervention said handing over more power to governments will disrupt the free flow of information that often has led to great technological discoveries.

“Some of the innovation may be a lot harder to get through,” said Allen Miller, senior vice president of global affairs for the Information Technology Association of America. “It would lead to a general economic depression.”

U.N. critics said governments are more likely to view problems on the Internet as political, rather than technological, and will make rules accordingly.

“To give a political solution to a technical problem never works,” said Scott Bradner, a Harvard technical consultant who works on a task force that helps maintain the Internet.

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