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The U.N. claws at cyberspace

I nearly choked on my tea when I read in my news alerts that the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union wants to be given more influence over the Internet. I persevered and learnt ‘interesting’ things (interesting as in the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times“…) The Chinese connection is somewhat relevant – Houlin Zhao, the venerable bureaucrat who heads the ITU, is a former government official in China’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

So, we have a UN agency, run by a (former) Chinese government official saying that they should be able to run more aspects of the Internet. Zhao wrote in December:

Countering spam is just one of many elements of protecting the Internet that include availability during emergencies and supporting public safety and law enforcement officials… The ITU would take care of other work, such as work on Internet exchange points, Internet interconnection charging regimes, and methods to provide authenticated directories that meet national privacy regimes.

In an interview with CNET news, Zhao explains ITU’s position:

ITU’s situation is similar to the U.S. Constitution. ITU is very dynamic. We try to keep abreast of the latest development of the market and to give assistance to human society for future development. Remember, ITU was created in May 1865 to develop a system for telegraphs.

The US Constitution…well, isn’t that nice? But then I read this and shudder:

One of the most important changes was the early stages, when the Internet started, when ICANN started in 1998. The purpose was to exclude governments (but that didn’t work). People realize today that the governments worldwide have to play a role.

No, Mr Zhao, people do not realise that the governments have a role to play, especially given that internet has been the fastest developing, innovative and dynamic technological and social advance that humankind has even known. Brining governments into it is just going to put a big spanner into the works. If anything, people have learned that you can have an entire dimension of your existence i.e. online functioning just fine, if not better, than the offline.

People say the Internet flourished because of the absence of government control. I do not agree with this view. I argue that in any country, if the government opposed Internet service, how do you get Internet service? If there are any Internet governance structure changes in the future, I think government rules will be more important and more respected.

What we have here is an example of authoritarian meta-context, Mr Zhao assumes that there are only two options – government opposition to internet service or complete control. Otherwise his statement does not make sense. How about no interference either way?

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10 comments to The U.N. claws at cyberspace

  • Jake

    his is the stupidest idea I have ever heard. There is no shortage of entrepreneurs willing to put ISPs in every country in the world.

    If Nepal can have Internet access at 12,000 feet in the middle of the Himalayas, the UN is not needed. I know because I sent a email from an Internet café in a small village in the middle of nowhere in Nepal. I was huffing and puffing the whole time I was typing.

    The dictators that control the UN just want to put information choke points on the Internet to protect their dictatorships.

  • Huffing and puffing, eh… Must have been the altitude… Yeah, that’s it, the altitude… ;-)

  • David Wildgoose

    I was about to leap in with the information that the “May You Live In Interesting Times” curse was actually written by Eric Frank Russell – only to see that you’d already beaten me to it. Well Done!

    Oh, and “Interesting Times” is my favourite Pratchett book, I love the line Rincewind comes out with when asked “Surely some things are worth dying for?”, which is roughly “You can get a new cause on any street corner, but you only get one life”.

  • The ITU is basically a clearing house for standards and information. Zhao is delusional if he thinks he has any control over global telecommunications, or would do over the Internet.

  • guy herbert

    I take Zhao’s world-view slightly differently: He cannot conceive of government not wishing to control. But neither can he conceive a government without absolute power. Therefore if government in his conception does not control something, it must oppose it (as a threat to absolute power, without which government ceases to be government as he understands it) and since government does have absolute power nothing it opposes can happen.

    St Anselm would be proud. I’m sure there’s an analogous Blairite argument on the ontological necessity of regulation.

  • Ken

    The UN will always try to get more power. It is the nature of every government body. Since the UN has a bureau about communications that bureau will try to expand in that area.

    Since the insolent, unruly internet often irritates the established media and comfortable politicans you can bet they will try to turn it over to an international agency which can monitor and suppress without recourse.

  • Following this up, I realized that it is not just the naked power grab it appears to be on the face of it. There are actual worries about one of the Internet’s governing bodies, ICANN, which is widely perceived as an American organization. Obviously, you can’t have Americans influencing a social and political juggernaut like the Internet, lest American influence penetrate pristine corners of the world.

  • Following this up, I realized that it is not just the naked power grab it appears to be on the face of it. There are actual worries about one of the Internet’s governing bodies, ICANN, which is widely perceived as an American organization. Obviously, you can’t have Americans influencing a social and political juggernaut like the Internet, lest American influence penetrate pristine corners of the world.

  • Larry Blue

    “If there are any Internet governance structure changes in the future, I think government rules will be more important and more respected.”

    Ohyeah, I’m going to respect that.

    The ITU is in an “interesting time” of its own. Like its equivelant, the Universal Postal Union, it is being supplanted by technology and market changes.

    Buggy whip makers the lot of them.

  • Steve

    One thing about the internet, good, bad or indifferent, is the free exchange of commerce. Probably not a government alive that can stomach that. Call it world wide want ads.