The Asian Wall Street Journal, Op-Ed Page

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

 

Don't Let Governments Politicize the Internet

By Kenneth Neil Cukier

 

SHANGHAI -- When the undergirding of the Internet came under a massive attack last month that could have effectively shut it down, the Net made it through without a hitch. But it's not clear whether the network designed to survive a nuclear war will be able to withstand the onslaught of politics.

 

Governments around the world are taking a greater role in regulating the Internet. Yet as they do, they're carrying traditional offline political disputes into cyberspace. The result is that the actions risk harming the Internet's smooth operation and the freedoms that an unfettered Internet could bring.

 

Consider: China has expressed concern over why the two-letter Internet code .tw for Taiwan exists in the Net's address system. Chinese officials are wary that used alongside other addresses like .cn for China or .jp for Japan, Taiwan's Web moniker seems to legitimize the island as a nation, which China regards as a breakaway province.

 

The implications are frightening. Deleting .tw from the Internet's global addressing system would leave users in the territory digitally stranded and undercut freedom of speech online for Taiwanese users. China's national Internet address .cn obviously isn't a viable substitute, given that the country strictly controls Internet content.

 

Yet China's stance isn't unique. In a number of cases hidden from public scrutiny, governments are trying to manipulate how the Internet is run to promote their national political agendas. They've taken their causes deep into the heart of the network, at the addresses used for Web sites and email.

 

Spain, for example, is seeking to shut down the Web site www.batasuna.org because the site is run by a Basque-affiliated opposition party that a Spanish court has banned. However, the site is based outside Spain and, like everything on the Web, is accessible to a global audience. Moreover, Spain only allowed the European Commission to move forward with plans to create a .eu Internet address, which will go live shortly, after it received assurances that the address www.basque.eu would be prohibited.

 

Of course, making new technologies the battleground for classic political rivalries is an old art. Getting telegraph operators to interconnect across national borders was a hard-won battle. Later, French and U.S. diplomats in the late 1800s conducted tortuous negotiations over telephone lines and national sovereignty (an ironic precursor to 2000, when a French court banned Yahoo's U.S.-based Web site). Even today, Taiwan's international telephone code 886 isn't an official standard of the United Nations affiliate body that oversees telecommunications, since the island isn't formally recognized by the U.N. Instead, telecom operators simply informally agree to use those digits to designate the territory.

 

Yet grafting political squabbles onto the Net poses greater risks than simply a hiccup in the flow of digital traffic. Internet addresses like those ending in .com or .tw represent the critical infrastructure that enable people to communicate, create content and access information. It is a matter of freedom of speech, whether the site is www.faluninfo.net (a Falun Gong site that China blocks) or www.companyxsucks.com. As the Net takes on an increasingly important role in civil society, the issue is fast becoming one of freedom of assembly and liberty of thought.

 

Whoever controls language controls a society's memory. Likewise, governmental control over Internet addresses can be a powerful lever to impose political objectives onto the Internet.

 

Governmental efforts to affect how the Net is run gained ground last week at a meeting of the board of directors of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Considered the U.N. of cyberspace, Icann oversees the Internet address system and other aspects of the Net that make it work technically. It was established in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Commerce as the industry's self-regulatory body, with a small advisory committee of governmental representatives. At the board meeting -- in Shanghai, of all places -- Icann moved forward with reforms that bring governments further into the fold.

 

The influence of government can be good if it means ensuring the security and stability of the network. For instance, last month's attack on the Internet's central addressing system, which Icann oversees, marks a case where some government action may be useful to harden the Net's underpinnings. And only governments can bring the rule of law online, for everything from consumer protection to intellectual property rights. But governments must be cautious not to politicize the Net, jeopardizing its operation to the detriment of users.

 

In the cases of China and Spain, Icann has no plans to scrap the .tw domain nor torpedo a political party's cyber presence; in fact, the organization wouldn't have the ability to zap a name off the network. Still, the incidents are indicative of the sorts of threats the Internet now faces. As governments begin to play a larger role in setting policy through Icann, the temptation to use Icann to further national objectives, possibly at the expense of users' freedoms, will only increase.

 

Governments must recognize that the best role they can play is to act in the interest of all Internet users, regardless of nationality. Government involvement in Internet policy is most appropriate when it ensures the basic functioning of the network -- not when it is used to satisfy the national ego or wrestle over long-standing political disputes.

 

It would be a pity if the ephemeral network that can bring people together by transcending borders found itself buried by the politics of the tangible world.

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Mr. Cukier is a research fellow at the National Center for Digital Government at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.