Let it be!

Updated: Nov 17 2005, 05:30am hrs
The World Summit on the Information Society that began on Wednesday in Tunis is purportedly about the digital divide. But the real issue is internet governance. And critical to this is the underlying question of who will administer domain names such as .com or .org. Today, this is done by a not-for-profit organisation based in California, called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) and the Internet Assigned Names Authority (Iana). Both are overseen by the US governments department of commerce. Many countries are not happy with this arrangement. They argue that if the Internet is a global resource, theres no reason why its governance should not be internationalised.

Most professionals are against this. They fear that once governments (read politicians) enter this domain, the free-wheeling nature of the internet will be jeopardised. Icann proponents point to the fact that many of those backing the move to get governments in, such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Cuba, are not exactly champions of freedom. In China , for instance, Microsoft, Google, etc., are required to block citizens access to Web pages that mention subjects such as democracy and freedom.

Also, that since the system has worked quite well so far, there is no need to change itthe if it aint broke, then dont fix it argument. There is much to be said for this. Icann has, by and large, done a fairly good job. Earlier this year, however, the commerce department blocked the creation of an .xxx domain for pornography because of opposition from some conservatives and religious organisations, raising the issue of the US opposing more international control of the internet, even while imposing its own values on the net. At the same time, we do need to address issues such as abuse of democratic rights, spamming, child pornography and intellectual property violations. The key concern is to address these issues without curbing the spirit of the net.

The European Unions compromise formula, proposing governments get a say in the policy, but keeping them out of Icanns day-to-day decision-making could be the way forward, though the contours of its formula need to be clarified. It is also imperative to build safeguards to ensure there is no politicisation of technical decision-making, slowing of innovation or scope for government control. Any alternative that compromises on the free-wheeling nature of the internet must be eschewed. With apologies to Paul McCartney, wed urge the meeting in Tunis to let it be, let it be..