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UN considers panel of governments to set policies for policing the Internet

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, December 17, 2010 17:21 EDT
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A United Nations task force formed last week said it was considering the creation of a new inter-governmental working group to help further international cooperation on policies to police the Internet.

The discussion was undertaken to “enhance” and extend the work of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a UN-sponsored organization that makes recommendations on how governments should deal with the Internet. The IGF’s mandate is due to expire soon, so members of the UN’s Commission on Science and Technology for Development Bureau took up the issue and formed a task force to determine what the new IGF should look like.

The bureau’s members, however, decided their task force would be limited to governments only, with no representation by civil or industry groups.

The decision drew a sharp warning from search giant Google, which insisted that the next IGF, if comprised only of governments, could result in them obtaining a “monopoly” on how the Internet is run, as opposed to the current model where innovation flows from the bottom up. Google’s blog said the firm had joined a petition of other industry groups in opposing the composition of the UN’s task force.

Delegates stressed that the new working group would not pose an effort to micromanage industry, but to better facilitate government control over networks in a broader sense, and to harmonize enforcement policies between nations.

At the task force’s meeting on Tuesday, delegates for China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Serbia and Saudi Arabia said they supported the government-only plan, with some saying they hoped it would further proliferation of broadband services in poorer nations. Brazil specifically insisted it should not be seen as a “takeover” of the Internet.

A delegate for Portugal added that proliferation of the Internet had already made “such an impact” on helping impoverished African nations, where banking by cell phone has become popularized thanks to support by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

And while she credited the spread of technology with “opening countries,” she also said that the free and open Internet has the tendency to “create crime” out in the real world, giving reason for enhanced international cooperation on network management and law enforcement.

The comment seemed to be one of several less-than-subtle nudges toward policies that could be construed as a response to secrets outlet WikiLeaks, which has in recent weeks caused an international furor over its role in aiding media reports on a cache of leaked US State Department cables. The US Department of Justice said it was investigating charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was recently released on bail in London pending an extradition fight over sexual assault charges from Sweden.

In the weeks since stories about the cables began appearing in newspapers all over the world, the US government and private entities such as PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, online retailer Amazon and even a Swiss bank have acted in tandem in a campaign to censor the website, halt its funding and knock it offline. Even after “mass attacks” succeeding in getting WikiLeaks.org delisted from the centralized Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — effectively taking the site offline — WikiLeaks soon reappeared on hundreds of domains hosted all around the world.

Open Internet advocates called the series of events, which triggered what some called an “all-out cyber war” against firms that tried to censor WikiLeaks, showed a need
for a decentralized DNS system to make government takedowns impossible. One project, called dot-P2P — based on the same peer-to-peer technologies that helped popularize “bittorrent” networks after the shutdown of the Napster music sharing service’s first iteration — was already well on its way to establishing a workable, decentralized system for connecting domain names to servers.

Another project called P2P DNS, headed up by one of the founders of The Pirate Bay website, aims to take on ICANN and spread DNS registries on the .p2p domain to as many computers and servers as possible. The Pirate Bay has been castigated by governments and trade groups worldwide for hosting torrents that allow files of any variety to be shared, much like the US music industry’s response to Napster.

Industry objects

“The beauty of the Internet is that it’s not controlled by any one group,” a post to Google’s official blog began. “Its governance is bottoms-up—with academics, non-profits, companies and governments all working to improve this technological wonder of the modern world. This model has not only made the Internet very open—a testbed for innovation by anyone, anywhere—it’s also prevented vested interests from taking control.”

The open-source software giant said it joined with industry groups that expressed alarm at the “extraordinary meeting” in an open letter to the UN’s current working group.

“This move has been condemned by the Internet Governance Caucus, the Internet Society (ISOC), the International Chamber of Commerce and numerous other organizations,” Google’s post continued.

They also pointed to an online petition calling for resistance to the proposed IGF remake.

“Today, I have signed that petition on Google’s behalf because we don’t believe governments should be allowed to grant themselves a monopoly on Internet governance,” Google’s Vint Cerf, their “Chief Internet Evangelist,” continued. “The current bottoms-up, open approach works—protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation. Let’s fight to keep it that way.”

In their letter, the ISOC and others called for an IGF with the “full and active participation of governments, the private sector and civil society from both developing and developed countries.”

They added that the proposed format of the next IGF was “incompatible” with a July resolution by the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which required the Commission on Science and Technology for Development to form a working group made up of states and “all other stakeholders.”

“We believe this decision sets back the model of multistakeholder cooperation under which the IGF was established, and contradicts the instructions given to the CSTD for the establishment of the Working Group,” ISOC said.

The under secretary for the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Council repeatedly told delegates during the group’s Tuesday meeting that no actions taken by the potential next IGF would preclude non-governmental stakeholders.

Video of the task force’s Tuesday meeting was available online.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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