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Democracy and the Net - How American ideals are quietly influencing the world

Madison, Wis.Despots hate the Internet. It’s one thing for a dictator to control a relative handful of television stations and newspaper plants, but it’s quite another for a totalitarian regime to block information that may be easily called up on a wireless laptop.

Perhaps that explains why some global “web-o-crats” are forever working to wrest maintenance of the Internet away from its American roots and substitute United Nations-style regulation, complete with Third World efficiency and tepid dedication to free speech and human rights.

That scenario was avoided – for now – at this month’s World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, where the U.N.-appointed group turned back proposals to establish some form of international body to oversee and regulate the Internet.

Internet governance is currently restricted to a non-profit, multinational body based in California. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers maintains a host of technical standards, which allows traffic to flow throughout the global communications network. ICANN is a private organization with an international board of directors, but there is some oversight by Washington because it’s a U.S.-based corporation.

“The Internet itself is not controlled by any single government; it is not controlled by any single person,” Assistant U.S. Secretary of Commerce Michael Gallagher said in Tunis during the Nov. 16-18 summit. “It is a manifestation of the creativity and the genius of the world spirit… The promise of the Internet is not fulfilled by economic growth alone. Its greater promise is the opportunity it offers to the people of every nation to pursue educational, cultural, political, medical, scientific, and commercial achievements for the betterment of all.”
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While some emerging nations simply want more say over eCommerce rules and regulations, some of the countries most eager to impose international control have questionable records on free speech and human rights. The trick is to balance interests against dangers: Build a vibrant common carrier for international commerce, and protect it from governmental whim if a dissident group uses the Internet to broadcast photographs of the next Tiananmen Square.

That attitude was reflected in the post-summit remarks of Paul Twomey, ICANN’s president and CEO, who said the outcome means “more than a billion Internet users can have confidence in the ongoing stability and security of the Internet’s core infrastructure and workings… We welcome the acknowledgement that the Internet operations remain independent of day-to-day politics and political influence.”

The World Summit on the Information Society was created two years ago to help bridge the “digital divide” – the gap between information “haves” and “have-nots” – by increasing use of communications tools such as the Internet in poor nations. Internet security, fraud, terrorism threats and development of inexpensive open-source software were among the issues. But the summit somehow fixated on governance: Who should oversee the main computers that control traffic on the Internet?

While some want ICANN to give way to government oversight, many are cautious. As Harvard researcher Kenneth Cukier said: “The Internet is arguably U.S.-centric, but it works, and it works better than a lot of people thought it ever would. The U.S. government is understandably weary of handing over control to some international inter-governmental body that could mess it up. And governments of most other industrialized nations generally agree.”

At a global conference on terrorism in March, the Internet was appropriately described as “a foundation of democratic society in the 21st century” because the core values of the Internet and democracy are so aligned. Here’s what the group said:

• The Internet is fundamentally about openness, participation, and freedom of expression for all -- increasing the diversity and reach of information and ideas.
• The Internet allows people to communicate and collaborate across borders and belief systems.
• The Internet unites families and cultures in diaspora; it connects people, helping them to form civil societies.
• The Internet can foster economic development by connecting people to information and markets.
• The Internet introduces new ideas and views to those who may be isolated and prone to political violence.
• The Internet is neither above nor below the law. The same legal principles that apply in the physical world also apply to human activities conducted over the Internet.

If a global conference on terrorism can look past the threat of Internet abuse to see its democratic potential, surely the World Summit on the Information Society should be able to do the same.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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