Monday, July 27, 2009

What’s Chinese for .limitedgovernment?

Authoritarian governments make a bid to control the Internet.

JULY 26, 2009, 7:51 P.M. ET

One of the marvels of the Internet is that it is self-governing, with private groups of engineers and technology companies doing their best to keep it up and running without political interference. Many countries around the world censor how their citizens access the Web, but governance of the Internet itself has been left to technologists and their largely libertarian instincts.

This happy state of affairs could be close to an end. There are now more Internet users in China than in any other country, and the fastest growing group of new users online is from non-English- speaking developing countries. This has led to a well-meaning plan to reorient the Web toward these users. But it could result in authoritarian governments insisting on more influence.

At issue is a key shift in the approach of Icann, the California-based nonprofit that maintains the directory of Internet addresses. Icann, which stands for Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, ultimately reports to the U.S. Commerce Department, though it has numerous advisory groups from other countries and from free-speech and other advocacy groups. It plans to open the door to many new Web addresses and to give better access to non-English-language users.

Next spring, Icann is set to expand Web addresses beyond the familiar .com, .org and .edu to domains that would include the names of industries, companies and political movements. Under its proposed rules, anyone who could afford the almost $200,000 registration fee should be able to start a domain. Icann would also permit top-level domains in non-Latin alphabets. This means Internet addresses in languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Farsi.

This will make the Web more accessible to non-English-speakers but also will lead to tricky issues, such as whether dissidents in China or Iran will be permitted to have their own dot-addresses. How would Beijing respond to a Chinese-language domain that translates into .democracy or .limitedgovernment, perhaps hosted by computers in Taipei or Vancouver?

This prospect could explain why Beijing recently had a top bureaucrat engage with Icann for the first time since 2001. Governments tend to be less concerned when only their better-educated, more English-fluent citizens have access to information. When I ran the English-language Far Eastern Economic Review magazine in the 1990s, it was rarely blacklisted in China for its reporting, but issues were routinely banned when they included political cartoons featuring Chinese government officials.

The combination of more domains in more languages could put unprecedented pressures on a system under which Web addresses are interoperable only because all governments agree that Icann controls the directory.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a Web researcher writing a book about lessons from China on Internet freedom, praises Icann for being influenced by nongovernmental groups, not just governments. “The U.N. model of Internet governance is highly unsatisfactory from a human-rights and free-expression point of view for obvious reasons,” she told me. “The Chinese and the Iranians and various other authoritarian countries will insist on standards and rules that make dissent more difficult, destroy the possibility of anonymity, and facilitate surveillance.”

Up to now, governments have been largely hands-off. An amusing example is the dispute over the domain The queen of England, “in right of her Government in New Zealand, as Trustee for the Citizens, Organizations and State of New Zealand,” brought an action in 2002 against a Seattle-based company called Virtual Countries Inc. that had registered the Web address. The queen argued that her antipodean country should have control over its own .com name. This may sound reasonable, but she lost. New Zealand had to buy the .com address for $500,000.

Will governments like China’s be as philosophical about Internet domain decisions they don’t like?

Countries such as China, Russia and Iran have long argued that it’s wrong for Icann to report to the U.S. government. Any alternative to the light control exerted by the U.S. government could put the Web on a slippery course toward more control. This is one reason efforts by these countries to politicize Icann have failed in the past.

“I think the question here is not about which governments have the moral right to lead Internet governance over others,” Ms. MacKinnon argues, “but about whether it’s appropriate that Internet governance should be the sole province of governments, many of which do not arguably represent the interests of Internet users in their countries because they were not democratically elected.”

It’s tempting to dismiss Internet idealists, but the Web has been a powerful force for individual expression, especially in parts of the world where free speech had been limited to those who could afford it. Groups like Icann will have their hands full trying to keep controlling governments from restricting freedom of the Internet.

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