Everybody Wants to Rule the Web

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There's mounting evidence that the Internet's good old days as aglobal cyberzone of freedom -- where governments generally take a"hands off" approach -- may be numbered.

In fact, a few weeks ago, delegates from 192 countries met inGeneva to discuss how the Internet should be governed and whatsteps should be taken to solve the global "digital divide" and"harness the potential of information" on behalf of the world'spoor. Also on the table at the session -- the United Nations WorldSummit on the Information Society -- was the question of domainname management and how much protection free speech and expressionshould receive on the Net.

The real issue, however, is whether a "United Nations for theInternet" is on the way. There was discussion at the recentconference of whether Internet decision making should be shiftedfrom largely private management to the United Nations. Anothersummit is scheduled for 2005.

In one sense, none of this is surprising. Regulators across theglobe have long been clamoring for greater control over content andcommerce on the Internet. Ironically, in the guise of protectingthe world's citizens, statists around the world want to get theirhands on one of the world's most liberating technologies.

While the U.N. conferees "generously" agreed to retain languagethat enshrines free speech, despite the disapproval of countriessuch as China and Iran, these matters are far from settled. Therehave been a few notable international cyberspats already, such as aFrench court's attempt to force Yahoo to block the sale ofoffensive Nazi materials to French citizens, and an Australiancourt's ruling that the online version of the Dow Jones publicationBarron's could be subjected to that country's libel laws. AndChinese officials have attempted to censor the search enginesGoogle, AltaVista and Yahoo.

If enough countries start playing these games, the threat ofretaliation and potential trade wars increases as cross-borderlegal spats intensify over privacy, gambling, pornography,intellectual property and tax policy.

The implications for online commerce are profound. The momentone puts a Web site online, one has "gone global." Should that meanyou have automatically and willingly subjected yourself to the lawsof every country on the planet? Shouldn't the origin of contentmatter?

This is one reason some favor the "U.N. for the Net" model. Butothers have suggested that international treaties or adjudicationby the World Trade Organization might offer the better approach.Still others assert that the best answer is to do nothing becausethe current unregulated Web environment has helped expand freespeech and commerce globally for companies, consumers and citizensalike.

We favor the latter. But to the extent pure laissez-faire is notan option, "country of origin" standards may provide the bestdefault solution. That is, government should only exert authorityover those actors who physically reside within the confines oftheir traditional geographic borders. In this sense, anorigin-based jurisdictional methodology protects sovereignty whilegiving meaning to the notion of "consent of the governed" in anonline setting.

The great advantage of the Net is precisely the ability to reachas many people as possible and overcome artificial restrictions ontrade or communications at traditional geographic boundaries. TheWeb, whatever problems it has raised, has provided far moreopportunity and freedom to mankind. The United Nations appearseager to assume greater control over the Net, not because of itsfailures, but because it undermines members' authority. That soundslike the best reason ever to make sure a United Nations for theInternet never becomes a reality.