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?