The Internet is the most free form of communications ever developed. Anyone can put up a website or blog and spout opinions — whether brilliant, inane or very wrong.
But governments, in their lust to control our lives, just can't leave the Internet alone. The latest threat comes from an agency of the United Nations, the 193-member International Telecommunications Union. Members include North Korea, Cuba, Iran, China, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and other governments not exactly known for embracing free speech.
America is "asleep at the router" regarding U.N. attempts to take over the Internet, Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell warned Dec. 19. He was speaking before the editorial board of the Washington Times. "Thus far, those who are pushing for new intergovernmental powers over the Internet are far more energized and organized than those who favor the Internet freedom and prosperity." He said that many foreign governments are upset at what they see as U.S. control of the Internet.
The Times reported that the ITU "will meet in Dubai next December (2012) to renegotiate the 24-year-old treaty that deals with international oversight of the Internet. A growing number of countries are pushing for greater governmental control and management of the Web's availability, financial model and infrastructure."
In fact, the United States government only has nominal control over the Internet, said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. The key to control is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN assigns a name and numerical address for every Internet domain, such as "cnjonline.com." This keeps the Internet uniform globally. It truly is a cohesive "net," instead of a collection of separate systems.
This duty formerly was informally performed by the U.S. government. But in 1998, President Bill Clinton spun off ICANN, which is a non-profit headquartered in Marina del Rey. Mr. Harper said that, despite its location in the United States, ICANN so far is basically "free of government control. This is a mushy organization that sort of works." Keeping ICANN independent "is a long-running battle that will continue forever."
Some people don't like that. Regimes such as those in Iran, Saudi Arabia and China want more control to censor the Net. And Mr. Harper said, "European bureaucrats want to make sure the Internet is run with 'public values' in mind" — a socialist attitude.
Another threat comes from our own Congress in the form of the Stop Online Piracy Act, House Resolution 3261, by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. We have criticized it before for trying to take over the Internet to prevent "piracy" of videos, music and other information. As we have noted, sufficient safeguards already exist for online copyrights. No further legislation is needed.
Harper warned that passing SOPA would put the U.S. government in charge of the Internet, which then would "just give the Europeans an excuse to try to take control." That is another reason to defeat SOPA.
Benign neglect is the best way to treat the Internet. The U.S. government should resist U.N. meddling. Information wants to be free.