Thursday, November 17, 2005

Regulating the internet?

The second phase of the World Summit on Information Society has kicked off in Tunis. The main aim of the conference is to figure out how international governance of the internet can be carried out. Currently, the US and the ICANN manage the technical and the administrative aspects of the digital sphere. Other parties have limited influence on the process. But now the UN is trying to establish an international body that can at least take over the administrative affairs of the Internet.

I dug up the Declaration of Principles from the last phase of the Summit. This document declares the following on the issue:
48. The Internet has evolved into a global facility available to the public and its governance should constitute a core issue of the Information Society agenda. The international management of the Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations. It should ensure an equitable distribution of resources, facilitate access for all and ensure a stable and secure functioning of the Internet, taking into account multilingualism.

49. The management of the Internet encompasses both technical and public policy issues and should involve all stakeholders and relevant intergovernmental and international organizations. In this respect it is recognized that:
a. Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States. They have rights and responsibilities for international Internet-related public policy issues;

But well that is just what the US doesn't want to
allow:

On the one side, you had the US. Americans officials had strongly reiterated that it would not give up control over the net's technical functions, including the domain name addressing system.

They argued that the internet grew out of US military and academic research, and that the US government had both the responsibility, and the ability, to keep the internet open, stable and secure.

On the other side, you had nations making the case that the relationship between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce essentially amounted to American control of what has become a truly global communications and economic resource.

The time had come, they argued, to internationalise the discussion surrounding the net.

Well, of course we have to internationalise the discussion. But that raises an interesting related question... If we leave out the international end for the time being- how far should the governments be allowed to go with "controlling" this medium at the domestic level? We know that there isn't much they can do on the international front- but it's a different story within their own states. The freedom and the avenues that the Internet has provided the common man, does not need any mentioning... so if the government was suddenly sweep in and start regulating it all, how much difference would it make? The governments currently do regulate the net traffic, but I am wondering whether government interference at the local/domestic level would change? Given that all of a sudden when it can play a role on the international end of it - would it want to further its entrenchments domestically as well? What would that signal for net users? I think that if we can have free print and electronic media then it shouldn't be too much of an issue. But the internet is a far more powerful medium. So then what?

Another thing that struck me was that the UN Declaration talked of upholding the sovereignty of nation States and that the policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States. Over the last decade or so, we have truly seen the concept of sovereign states being challenged. The states are no longer the traditional sovereign actors - so many other entities have no come into play- and of course that sovereignty has be threatened. Then is this another pretext that can be used to curb Internet freedom? The mere fact that this clause exists in the Declaration implies that governments are already sensitive over this issue. So then if we do have internet governance - what would be its form? How far would it penetrate? Actually how far can it penerate?