The debate over Internet governance is rather recent and indicates its wide-ranging scope and economic, social and political implications. It is not surprising, therefore, that 175 countries met at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), in Tunis, a couple of weeks ago, to discuss the issue, among others.
According to press reports, the meeting’s most relevant fact was the movement, led by several countries, that is pressing for some kind of international legislation over Internet governance. The group, formed by countries such as Brazil, China, Iran, India and Cuba, argues that no one country in particular should control the Internet; instead, they claim, there should be an international authority, under the United Nations umbrella, to rule it.
As it was reported by the media, it seemed yet another round of the struggle between developed and developing countries. In fact, it is the consequence of technical and historical misconceptions.
The reason why the infra-structure that makes the world wide web possible is located in U.S. territory is the fact that this technology was financed, created and mainly developed there. Furthermore, it was conceived with the very idea that it should be an autonomous system.
So, what are the real motivations behind this lobby group? For democratic countries, like Brazil, it is probably due to backward ideological reasons. But for authoritarian regimes, such as China, Iran or Cuba, it seems obvious that it’s political purposes. The free flow of information in the web goes against these (and others’) regimes’ political interests. And such countries exert great power with the U.N. bureaucracy.
It seems reasonable that there should be some sort of international accountability for Internet governance. The question is whether the U.N. is the solution. Perhaps a more appropriate institution to oversee it would be the World Trade Organization. First of all, its members are, in general, freer, more open societies. Secondly, the WTO has proven to be fair and effective to rule global commerce and disputes.
Given the decentralized, uncontrolled nature of the net, it is arguable, to say the least, whether Internet governance should be an issue at all in a U.N. summit. If countries really intend to find solutions and empower their citizens, there are other measures that can be taken, and which the U.N. could help.
On one hand, Internet access should be more democratic, more widespread around the world. Brazil’s “Digital inclusion” program, which offers computers at a low cost to poor families is a creative and simple idea that goes in the right direction.
On the other hand, the use of open-source software must be encouraged. First, because it requires much less of taxpayers’ money; secondly, because it makes information technology more readily available for the population; and thirdly, open-source software impends the appearance of scientists and knowledge-based inventiveness and development. Again, Brazil is a good example to the world, as the federal government, as several local governments as well, have done by opting out of the expensive copy-righted software and adopting open-source ones.
What must be clear is that any real attempt to make the web more democratic does not demand more or new bureaucracies to oversee it; instead, it requires that more people have the means (intellectual and material) to access the net.