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Internet to become an autocracy - a disaster, abetted by indifference

Posted on 27/03/2002 at 15:05

Why is one of our generation's most important issues going unreported? The failure of the world's press to cover ICANN will be regretted for decades to come.

You would be hard pushed to find anyone - in developed countries at least - that does not think the Internet will become the most significant tool for global communication in the future.

Sharing vast amounts of information with anybody on the planet within seconds still sounds more like sci-fi than reality. But it is here and we are only just beginning to realise the enormous implications not only on people living in individual countries but on the entire human race.

With mankind's evolution thus intrinsically tied in with the progression of the Internet, you would think every aspect would be a matter for wide-ranging debate; the minutiae pored over and rebuilt according to prevailing opinion; and the conclusions spelt out to the millions, billions of people who will see their lives changed by its existence.

Why then does virtually no-one know about the organisation that is effectively in control of the Internet and is currently deciding its future? And of those that do know, why do only a tiny proportion have anything more than a passing interest in it? I'm talking of course about ICANN - or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

You might think that if, say, the House of Commons decided to abolish the House of Lords tomorrow, switch off the TV cameras, close the public gallery and prevent 80 per cent of Her Majesty's opposition from entering the chamber, there would be a huge public outcry. There would. Equally, if the President of the United States decided to surround US Congress with the army and declare martial law, it seems unlikely any other story would feature in the first five pages of a national newspaper.

But this is effectively what the organisation set up simply to oversee the technical aspects of the Internet has done. And it has done it under the nose of the world's press. So why haven't you read about it? Why have only a few online newspapers happened to mention that one of ICANN's directors is currently suing the Board because it has spent over a year preventing him from gaining access to its accounts despite his legal right to see them? Or that under rules soon to be brought in by the Board, that that director would no longer be entitled to his position?

Why don't you know that at a meeting in Ghana this month, the Board attempted to set itself up literally as a government of the Internet? In which, of course, there would be no free elections and no requirement for the government members to step down.

Why you don't know is because no one in the mainstream press is reporting it. Despite unimaginable efforts by a few to gain complete control over the functioning of the Internet, it is not deemed worthy of even the most cursory of glances.

When you see the effort put into covering a country's own government - to the extent where even the most mindless gossip is treated as a significant political event, it is even harder to understand. Is it because of the international nature of the Internet - is it too large a topic to cover successfully? No. There still remains just one organisation that needs to be reviewed. If that is held to account, international issues need not concern the lowly reporter.

Is it in a similar vein to the European Parliament, which is so deathly dull and bureaucratic that, in British papers at least, the media restricts itself to grossly simplified overviews? No. ICANN is a veritable hotbed of political intrigue and dirty tricks and it's not hard to track down either (non-professional politicians are terrible liars).

Is it because of the commercial interests? Well, one of the most successfully argued cases against ICANN is that it is in the pockets of big business. Since newspaper owners have enormous interest in seeing the Internet as corporate-friendly as possible, is this a conspiracy by the world's most powerful?

Possibly there is an element of that. But the real reason was explained to me by a UK national journalist who might be expected to cover such issues. "Well, why is it interesting? Who gets hurt? It's just too abstract."

And there lies the rub. People are still not able to think on a global scale. If something doesn't directly affect someone in your country, why is it of interest? It is very hard to drum up interest in a topic that is still in flux, especially when the end result still works fine - you can still get on the Internet, can't you?

With this thinking, it won't be until a decision prevents someone from doing something that the Internet's overseeing body will become of interest. But of course by then it will be too late, the status quo will be formed and we'll only be capable of twiddling at the edges.

This inability to see the importance of global stewardship is a recent problem, until now left to agreements between countries' governments. But with global corporations and the backlash against them by anti-globalisation protesters, it is a subject that will only grow in prominence.

It may be good here to reflect on what happened to the one of the other main mediums of modern communications - radio. When radio was first invented, the language and energy put into it was almost identical to the early days of the Internet. Governments and corporations took years to recognise its value while in the meantime an entire sub-culture of radio hams had been created.

Radio, they felt, would enable a new age of mass person-to-person communication. It would be uncontrollable by government and give rise to free speech as never known before. But this was in the dark days before the Second World War. Governments realised the value of propaganda over the airwaves and corporates saw the possibilities in controlled listening.

Gradually, power over radio was clawed back and we are now left with modern radio: a one-way mass listening device owned and run by governments and corporations. How many radio hams do you know now?

But that could never happen with the Internet, could it?

Another thing you won't know: ICANN steamrollered all discussion at the November meeting at its headquarters in California. Following the 11 September attacks, no one was allowed to discuss anything but the security of the Internet and how to prevent the "wrong" people from using it to their own means.

At its most recent meeting in Ghana, a new proposal for the future of ICANN was put forward by president and CEO Stuart Lynn. ICANN would henceforth be mostly funded by countries' governments. And those on the Board that were voted on by Internet users themselves would be replaced by people chosen by those governments.

It doesn't take a genius to see where this could be heading. If media corporations were to see the need now to report extensively on a global organisation - and with ICANN, its importance is indisputable - then we may create a foundation for tackling future topics as they arise. If we don't, the next generation of reporters will despair at our lack of foresight and the dream of the Internet as a liberating medium will be lost.

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