Delegates from around the world will gather next week in Tunisia for what is known as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Few people are aware of WSIS's existence, its mission or the purpose of this conference. That is unfortunate, since the principal agenda item calls for a wholesale change in governance of the Internet that could lead to a significant setback for global freedom of information.
Although many are under the impression that the Internet is unregulated, this is not entirely the case. There are a number of technical issues -- such as the allocation of the dot-com or dot-net designations or the country codes that are attached to e-mails -- that must be determined by a central entity. This job is currently handled by an American nonprofit: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). With an international staff on three continents, ICANN has met its mandate in a way that all agree has been fair and nonpartisan.
While ICANN functions on a charter from the Commerce Department, the U.S. government has followed a strict hands-off policy; ICANN's actions are transparent and decisions are made only after extensive consultation with Internet companies, governments, techies and freedom-of-expression organizations. ICANN has contributed to the unique nature of the Internet as a creative and innovative means of communication that links people and ideas across national boundaries -- for the most part outside the control of government.
But demands are growing for the "internationalization" of Internet governance. To this end, a number of countries are pressing to remove oversight from ICANN and place it under the auspices of a new organization that would be part of the U.N. system. Advocates of this arrangement make no claims that the current system is flawed. Instead, they focus on the supposed "injustice" or "inappropriateness" of a system overseen by an American agency. And there is an ulterior motive behind the clamor for change.
In a Nov. 5 op-ed column in The Post, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote that a U.N. role in Internet governance would be benign and would concentrate on expanding the Internet into the developing world. But while Annan's intentions are no doubt well-meaning, the same cannot be said for the coalition of U.N member states making the loudest noise for change. Among them are regimes that have taken measures to control their citizens' access to the Internet and have championed global controls over Internet content. These include some of the world's most repressive states: Cuba, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Other governments have weighed in to support U.N. oversight, either out of anti-Americanism, a reflexive commitment to international governance or a belief that Internet content needs to be reined in.
Although U.N. officials deny any intention to broaden ICANN's mandate, past U.N. experience suggests that a limited mission can gradually expand into unanticipated territory under the relentless pressure of determined member states. Some of the most shameful U.N. episodes -- particularly regarding freedom issues -- have occurred because the world's democracies were outwitted by a coalition of the most repressive regimes -- the very coalition that is taking shape over Internet control. Working with determination and discipline, this alliance of dictatorships has already left the U.N. Human Rights Commission a shambles, something that Annan himself has deplored.
In this emerging contest, the position of the European Union is particularly disappointing. Initially aligned with the United States in support of Internet freedom, the E.U. recently went wobbly and proposed creation of a "forum" to govern the Internet, something different from ICANN though not under U.N. control -- this to the delight of Cuba and China.
Compounding the problem is the choice of Tunisia, a country with a woeful record of press freedom violations, as the WSIS conference's host. On Freedom House's global index of press freedom, Tunisia ranks near the bottom, right along with Iran and Saudi Arabia -- 173rd of 193 states. It is particularly zealous in restricting Internet content and has mobilized security forces to block Web sites, monitor e-mail and conduct surveillance of Internet cafes.
The United States delegation has pledged to stand firm in defense of ICANN while proposing a plan to allow more global discussion and debate on Internet issues. This is a good starting place; even better would be a decision by the European Union to align itself with the United States.
It is no secret why Iran, China and Cuba are lobbying so desperately to replace ICANN: The Internet has proven a potent weapon against state repression. In an age of media concentration, it has contributed mightily to democratization of the means of communication. It nullifies totalitarian schemes to monopolize the airwaves; in the age of the Internet, the total control portrayed by George Orwell in "1984" is simply impossible in all but the most hermetically sealed countries.
Given the stakes involved, it is incumbent on the world's democracies to stand firm against efforts to undermine this critical instrument of free ideas.
The writer is director of research at Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide.