Among the little-noticed debates at the United Nations this week was one that focuses on a potentially explosive issue: the future of the Internet. On one side are those countries favoring more governmental controls. On the other are the advocates of Internet freedom.
The debate has its roots in the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a U.N.-organized conference that addressed the "digital divide" between countries over their relative access to the Internet. One result of the conference was a mandate that the U.N. should explore ways to internationalize the governance of the Internet.
For all its power and worldwide reach, the Internet is still largely an unregulated space. But many governments, especially in the developing world, argue that it's time to strengthen international oversight, with intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations taking a lead role.
At issue is the extent to which private industry, civil society groups, and other nongovernmental actors should continue to play significant roles in the management of the Internet. At this week's hearing, organized by U.N. Department of Social and Economic Affairs, some countries, including China, favored limiting the oversight role to governmental and intergovernmental bodies.
"The governments are located in the center of this process," argued Tang Zicai, representing the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in Beijing. "This process cannot be accomplished without the meaningful participation of the governments."
The current organization of the Internet, however, leaves little room for government control, and many civil society groups say it should stay that way.
"The Internet is a network of networks working cooperatively together, designed to operate without centralized control or governance mechanisms," argued the Internet Society, a nonprofit international organization focusing on Internet standards, education, and policy.
In a statement prepared for the United Nations debate, the organization said the "intelligence" of the Internet is "predominantly at the edges, with the users. ... This model has proven to be flexible, adaptable and responsive to users' needs, and is itself the source of the tremendous innovation the Internet has created."
But support for increased government regulation of the Internet is growing, especially among the developing countries who constitute a majority in the United Nations General Assembly. Several were outspoken in presentations this week at the U.N. hearing.
"Developments have not been supportive of increasing the leverage of developing countries in policy issues pertaining to the Internet," said Mohammed Hussain Nejad, representing the government of Iran. "The few developed countries are either monopolizing policymaking on such issues or entering into exclusive treaties among themselves, while further marginalizing other countries, mainly developing ones," he said.
For those governments who simply favor more control over the Internet and for those who want to see the network reformed for the benefit of less powerful countries, there is one obvious solution: the United Nations should take more responsibility. Among those backing such a move are Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, and other emerging powers.
On the other side, in addition to civil society groups, are the United States and its western allies.
"The worst case scenario would be the imposition of U.N. types of governance over the Internet," says Philip Verveer, the Coordinator of International Communication and Information Policy at the US State Department. "[It would] inevitably bring with it tremendous slowness in terms of reaching critical decisions, because you can't have decisions taken among nations on anything that won't take a very long time. It would potentially [slow] changes in the architecture of the Internet, the adoption of technology, or the commercial arrangements that surround interconnection."
Of additional concern to U.N. critics is the prospect of governments pushing for new international rules to limit the political impact of the Internet.
"[These governments] don't like the idea of the free flow of information," Verveer says, "and intergovernmental controls would be a way of controlling the content that passes over the Internet by requiring, by treaty if you will, other administrations to cooperate in terms of suppressing speech that they didn't like."
The government of Mauritania, in its contribution to the U.N. debate, proposed that "international policy in the field of Internet should urge each country to ensure control of Internet content" in order to block the dissemination of any information "not authorized by law and morality" in some other country.
Such views, however, may reflect some naivete. The WikiLeaks episode showed how hard it can be to keep content off the Internet. Upset as it was by the disclosure of state secrets, the US government had no real way to keep users from finding the WikiLeaks material.
Indeed, more broadly, the U.N. debate over the future of the Internet shows that governments are still figuring out which Internet policies make sense and which don't.
"We're getting an opportunity for governments to ask dumb questions," says Gregory Francis, managing director of Access Partnership, a London-based lobbying firm that follows global Internet regulation issues. "If Mauritania asks Russia or France, 'Is this possible?' and the governments of those countries reply, 'No, it ain't,' they'll probably pipe down and go away."
But the debate over the Internet's future promises only to grow. Diplomats are already preparing for a World Conference on International Telecommunications, due to be held in 2012 in Malaysia.