Editor’s note: Neil Hrab is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

WASHINGTON,Late last year, C:\Spin looked at the emerging policy debate over whether the United Nations should control the Internet. We alerted readers to demands from some foreign countries to hand control of the Internet to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency. The debate has taken some interesting turns since we last reported on it. It is starting to resemble a classic studio rivalry between two actors over who will be the star in a blockbuster Hollywood picture.

The debate breaks down as follows: At present, a California-based (but internationally organized) non-profit group called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) administers the Internet’s domain name system. That system, in the words of Associated Press reporter Chris Hawley, “allows computers to find each other in cyberspace.” United Nations supporters believe the domain system is too important to be left to ICANN, which they say is too close to the US government (it reports to the Department of Commerce); the job should belong to the UN. ICANN’s supporters wonder if the top-heavy, bureaucratized UN is nimble enough to take on the task of overseeing the Internet.

ICANN is learning to defend itself in a more articulate way than before. For example, in a March 25 news report in the Financial Times, ICANN chief Paul Twomey explained why clumsy bureaucratic oversight hurts the Internet’s chances to grow. While acknowledging that “governments have to play a key role” as the ‘Net continues to mature, he cautioned against overestimating the UN’s ability to help in this process. “We don’t want [governments] to take the addressing system and politicize it — governments don’t always get along with each other.”

Internet as hostage?

This is an excellent point to keep in mind when thinking about proposals for greater UN control of the Internet. Putting the Internet under UN jurisdiction would likely make it a hostage to the political infighting that frequently occurs behind the scenes at the United Nations. That would not be good for the Internet’s future.

Twomey is not the only one questioning the wisdom of increased bureaucratic oversight of the Internet. A March 4th Reuters wire story quoted similar comments from Lucio Stanca, Italy’s technology minister. Stanca blasted the idea of greater state control over the Internet as a “gigantic mistake.” “Government must be involved only when public policy issues are at stake, but it is not the role of government to manage the Internet or to interfere in its free development,” declared Stanca. “One of the most important reasons for the Internet’s success is that no single entity controls it,” he said further. And, finally, Stanca also said that “we see ICANN as an asset. It should play a major role in the future.”

Most of the people who favor greater UN control over the Internet, as a sort of global public utility, do so for well-intentioned reasons. (The same can’t be said of some censorship-prone governments, however, who also back the idea.) Some hope the UN could help reduce the flow of spam, hate literature and pornography, for example, via the Internet. But although it was hatched through military and educational research institutions, today, as the Albuquerque Journal observed in a recent editorial, “the Internet is essentially a private-sector animal.” The private sector has managed the Internet’s growth “while maintaining its functionality.” These two tasks require enormous amounts of flexibility — a quality not traditionally associated with any known form of bureaucracy, especially not the UN. To go back to our acting analogy, the UN lacks the depth or range to try for the role of Internet supremo.

Seeking compromise

Perhaps the compromise outlined by Lucio Stanca represents the best way to resolve the UN vs. ICANN debate. Let the private sector (through ICANN) continue to manage the Internet; and let the UN, if it wishes to involve itself with Internet policy, confine its work to helping states coordinate action on shared Internet problems, such as the spread of computer viruses, or Internet crime issues.

The UN can play a positive role in the Internet’s future. Not a starring role by any means, but a smaller, supporting one (in line with its middling talents). Let’s allow the private sector to remain the lead character in this production.

C:\SPIN is produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute

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