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Governors of cyberspace

The words ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ cannot be used to search the web in China. The big internet companies – Google and Yahoo – install filters that comply with Chinese censorship efforts. On 30 December last year, Microsoft even shut down a Chinese-language blog on its MSN Pages when the blogger aggressively criticized government policies. On the same day, in Kazakhstan, the domain name manager for the country shut down a comic’s website by cancelling its domain registration so that he couldn’t ‘bad-mouth Kazakhstan under the .kz domain name’.

It’s not just in repressive states such as China and Kazakhstan where governments view free, open, global communication as a threat to their control. The US Government wants regulators to achieve more extensive spying capabilities by changing technical standards to permit law enforcement agencies to intercept communications. Back in 2000, the French Government began to pressure Yahoo and eBay to ban the display of Nazi memorabilia, eventually succeeding. As a technical system, the internet is global; data flows from one network address to another heedless of national boundaries. By contrast, governments are territorial. In the name of ‘national sovereignty’ they are looking for new forms of co-operation to regulate the internet so that they can rein in critics. This struggle goes by the name of ‘internet governance’.

Internet governance pits the need for global institutions against the territorial, nationalistic foundations of today’s governmental processes. The rise of inexpensive global communication has fostered the emergence of new transnational communities and a global industry. Through blogs, in chatrooms and on websites, information technology enables global activity – and governance – by the people.

Yet there is no global democracy or internet ‘bill of rights’ to guarantee people free speech and freedom of association when they are in cyberspace. International organizations are unlikely to push for such rights; they represent mostly states and not users. A transnational citizens’ movement – sometimes called ‘global civil society’ – has emerged to knock on the doors of institutions like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to draw their attention to concerns about human rights, gender, development and more open decision-making procedures.

Last year, a United Nations process – the World Summit on the Information Society – raised, but failed to resolve, many of these issues. The Summit was launched two years ago to bridge the technology gap between rich and poor countries. However, US control over the internet’s naming and addressing system has become a sticking point. A growing number of countries argue that it gives one Government an unchecked power to erase whole domains from cyberspace, in addition to giving US business interests a privileged role in making rules for the industry. Countries like Iran and Brazil are now advocating that the UN or some other global body should supervise the system, not just the US.

Global governance of the internet raises many opportunities – but also tremendous risks. It may lead to democratization and liberalization of international institutions. But it can also be used to empower states, protect local monopolies and repressive regimes, rein in challenging forms of communication and innovation, or facilitate surveillance of users. What happens depends on who participates.

*Milton Mueller*
Read more about these issues at The Internet Governance Project site – **

New Internationalist issue 388 magazine cover This article is from the April 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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