Saturday, November 12, 2005

Telecom summit

When diplomats from dozens of countries gather this week to discuss the future of global communications at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia, our reporter will be filing by fax.

We have the greatest respect and affection for Andrew Borowiec, a veteran from the early days of The Washington Times with more than 1,500 bylines in our pages over the past 20 years.

A longtime Associated Press reporter before that, the Polish-born Mr. Borowiec speaks at least five European languages fluently and mixes easily with diplomats and policy-makers across the Continent.

Semi-retired, he now divides his time between Nicosia, Cyprus, and a second residence near Geneva, adroitly keeping abreast of developments from Paris to Beirut. His strengths go on, but a facility with the new technologies is not among them.

Until Mr. Borowiec got his first Internet-capable computer about a year ago, he was our only overseas reporter not filing his stories by e-mail. He would peck them out, hike down to the local telegraph office and send them in by fax.

We liked to tease him, but we really didn’t mind. It was a bit of a nuisance but well worth the trouble to retype his stories into our computer system here. Nevertheless, we rejoiced when he bought the computer.

The trouble is, it’s a desktop model, so when he travels, it is back to the fax.

That will likely make him unique among the hundreds of reporters covering the WSIS summit, where one of the top items on the agenda concerns who will control the Internet.

It’s a fascinating issue, and one that this newspaper is very interested in following.

These days we all use the Internet, but few of us have any idea where it came from or who controls it. That lack of public interest is probably the strongest evidence it is being run in an apolitical and generally efficient manner.

A chilling prospect

In fact, much of the responsibility for assigning domain names and regulating disputes rests with a non-profit organization based in California called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

The arrangement seems perfectly satisfactory to most Americans, and why not? This country invented it and still hosts a majority of Web sites.

But the rest of the world is catching up rapidly, and coming to recognize the system’s extraordinary power to transform societies and nations. And governments around the world are thinking they would like to have a say in its future.

Reporters Without Borders, an international group whose main work is to protect the safety and freedom of journalists around the world, pointed out in a position paper last week that ICANN’s decisions, “though they seem very technical, have direct political repercussions.

“It can, in theory, block access to country domain names (for example, all the .fr or .cn sites). Money is also an issue because the body that runs the Internet has power to give advantage to some technologies and thus certain firms. The recent hiring by Google of Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, ICANN’s vice-president, has therefore raised concern.”

But, the journalist group continued, “The proposed remedies seem much worse.

“China, Cuba and the world’s other most repressive countries want to hand over control of the Internet to an independent supra-national body such as the United Nations. But the U.N.’s clumsy record on human rights — its Human Rights Commission was recently chaired by Libya — make the prospect a chilling one.”

Watch for Mr. Borowiec to bring you all the action from Tunis later this week. And if we are lucky, he will find an Internet cafe.

• David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is

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