Al Gore invented the Internet, but leave it to the United Nations to
really screw it up. This week, more than 6,000 delegates representing
61 states and government organizations are in Geneva for the World
Summit on the Information Society.
The supposed goal of the summit is to help people in poor nations
get online. According to U.N. apparatchiks, "knowledge and information
should be easily accessible to all ... the marginalized, unemployed,
underprivileged, disenfranchised peoples, children, the elderly, the
disabled, indigenous peoples and those with special needs."
It's really wonderful that the United Nations wants to help one-
armed chicken farmers in Bangladesh surf the Web. But maybe these
sanctimonious bureaucrats should focus on more pressing issues - like
providing plumbing, electricity and medicine - before obsessing over
whether malnourished children in Ethiopia have DSL access.
Besides, the only Macintosh a starving North Korean wants to see is
the bright red fruit. And what good does a flat-panel monitor do if
reading the opinions expressed thereon gets you hanged from the nearest
As with most U.N. summits, there is a dark side to this
all-expenses-paid cocktail party in Geneva. Countries like China,
Egypt, Syria and Vietnam are lobbying hard to wrest control of the
Internet from the United States.
Right now, the closest thing to an Internet governing body is a
small U.S. organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names and Numbers. ICANN was created by the Department of Commerce in
1998. It is run as a semi-private nonprofit with a government mandate
to oversee technical issues and other details - such as making sure
there are enough Web site addresses available.
As the gatekeeper of cyberspace, ICANN is far from perfect. The tech
magazine eWeek writes that "bureaucracy and secrecy have long been the
organization's strong suits." But despite ICANN's weaknesses, giving
U.N. bureaucrats the key to the Internet's chastity belt would be a
For starters, if the United Nations had to pass a simple resolution
stating "the cyber-sky is blue," it would take three years and include
a condemnation of Zionism. Getting scores of U.N. member states to
agree on complex technical standards would be next to impossible.
But there's a much bigger problem with giving the United Nations regulatory control of the Internet.
Despite the sunny charm of countries like Cuba and Iran, the United
Nations is populated with many despots who strive to censor anything
that might enlighten their own people. They regard freedom of speech
and individual rights - which are the life-blood of the Internet - with
contempt. In some countries, sending the wrong e-mail can get you
The United Nations gives legitimacy to these thuggish regimes. Syria
has a coveted position on the U.N. Security Council. And Libya presides
over the Commission on Human Rights.
These tyrannical regimes would love to regulate cyberspace through
the United Nations. But the Internet doesn't need their help. It
already works splendidly well. Indeed, for many of the world's
oppressed people, the Internet is a source of liberation, where they
can access uncensored information.
Although the Internet was born out of a U.S. military project to
ensure reliable communications in the event of nuclear war, it has been
nurtured in the public domain for over a decade. Without any guiding
political hand, the Internet has changed the way we work and
Ruled largely by free-market forces, the Internet has become one of
the miracles of our times. Sure, cyberspace has its problems. But if
you think pop-up ads and spam are annoying, wait until China and Syria
start meddling with your e-mail.