Freedom Democracy and the Internet

Article published on Dec. 10, 2003
community published
Article published on Dec. 10, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The World Summit on the Information Society begins today in Geneva. It is an opportunity to put democracy back at the heart of the Internet.

After ten years of hard graft, the Internet and information and communication technology have turned the world upside down. The information highway has allowed hundreds of millions of people to find information in real time and to chat with someone on the other side of the world. In short, it has allowed us to shrink time and space as if by magic – as long as we have the necessary means. This technological revolution (that some people are calling the 21st century’s ‘industrial revolution’) is the subject of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which begins today in Geneva. At the invitation of the United Nations, statesmen and representatives from international organisations, the business world and NGOs are coming together to jointly formulate a ‘Declaration of Principles’ and a plan of action for the coming years. This summit has two main objectives: firstly, to set out what the information society should be, and secondly to make this society available to everyone.

However, by focusing on the issue of the ‘digital divide’ and the means required to get countries in the South online (to try to reduce poverty), the summit is passing too quickly over regulation of the information society and especially regulation of the Internet.

‘Deus ex machina’

Few web users know how the network works. In Europe, many people think that the Internet is a place of total freedom. But there are regulative authorities. The ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is in charge of granting domain names. It therefore holds the life of web sites in its hands. But it is still structurally linked to the American government. For example, at the beginning of the year the ICANN decided to take back all the domain names from Iraqi Internet sites under the pretext of the Iraqi government’s instability. The ICANN is an all-powerful body which draws up its own criteria arbitrarily; is not answerable to web users who also have no right to either choose or dismiss the members of the ICANN. It is only subject to an American veto. This link with the United States is understandable because of the Internet’s origins but now that the network has become global, it is time to cut the cord. The ICANN has shown itself willing to do this (1) but it is far from becoming reality.

Circulation of information is also under strict governmental surveillance as a recent report by ‘Reporters Without Borders’ (2) underlined. Tunisia, the location for the second part of the WSIS, is sadly famous for its fierce repression of freedom of expression on the Internet. But that is clearly not the WSIS’s priority. So, why are we not making the most of the occasion and placing democratic running of the net on the agenda?

The network needs rules to work but it is unacceptable that they are only mapped out by certain countries. Let’s consult web users directly. Let’s create a regulatory body placed under the aegis of the United Nations that is directly answerable to web users. The ICANN tried to go down this complicated path a few years ago before giving up. But democracy is expensive in terms of time and energy because it demands respect and it demands that people be listened to. Is that not preferable to the current arbitrary situation?

(1) Paul Twomey, President of ICANN, denies working for the American government. However, even if the actions of the ICANN are not dictated by the United States, the fact that the American government has a right to veto with regard to its activities is still a important factor.