TCS Daily

Is the Empire Striking Back?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 10, 2003 12:00 AM

There's a summit on Internet governance going on in Geneva this week. Reader Micael O'Ronain is worried, and emails:

Control of the Internet is going to become an extremely critical issue over the next few years. The tyrants and bureaucrats are losing the control over the information dissemination channels they once enjoyed and they want it back. If the EUreaucrats and UN take over the web, control will be exercised under the guise of political correctness. Questioning the honesty of public officials will be classified as hate speech.


I'd like to dismiss this as paranoia, but I can't. (Though I should note that some European nations have actually been fighting the Internet-censorship effort.) The stakes here are very real. As this Reuters story notes, it's a "fight for control of the net," in which governments -- threatened by their steady loss of control over what their citizens read, say, and buy -- are trying to claw back some of the power that they've lost:

We are seeing a clear shift from the mid-90s when governments were told to stay away," said Michael Geist, a law professor at University of Ottawa who specialises in Internet governance issues. "Governments have shown they are very interested in getting involved on a domestic level and now they are looking at the international level."

One might think that this would be an obvious violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Though it hasn't been entirely silent, the human rights community has been less critical, so far, of efforts to censor the Internet than one might expect. Presumably, it has been kept too busy by criticism of the United States' activities in Guantanamo to address something as trivial as the empowerment of worldwide censorship. It's true, of course, that -- despite its plain language -- Article 19 has never been treated as truly binding. Like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, the position has been "Actually, it's more of a guideline than a rule..." But there's something rather suspiciously convenient about that attitude.

Geneva summit has already demonstrated its commitment to free expression by excluding Reporters Without Borders because of its criticism of the UN's hypocrisy on human rights:

Reporters Without Borders was told it was being banned from the 10-12 December summit in Geneva in a letter from WSIS executive director Pierre Gagné on 3 September. This grotesque decision followed the organisation's suspension for a year from the UN Commission on human rights at the request of regimes that are the worst press freedom violators because it energetically condemned the absurd choice of a Libyan representative as the commission's chairperson.

National and transnational bureaucrats don't, as a rule, like free speech -- or, as the choice of Libya indicates, human rights in general. And they don't like it that you can read Reporters Without Borders' criticism of them on the web, without needing permission from some government official. That's because free and open international communication is an enormous threat to bureaucracies, both national and transnational, that owe much of their power to their ability to keep people in the dark about what they're doing, and to pretend that voices criticizing their policies don't exist. The Internet, as I've written here before, has become a huge threat to the power of these folks, and it's expecting too much to think that they won't fight back. They are, and they will.

What's more, it's doubtful that we'll see this issue get the attention it deserves from Big Media. I hope I'm wrong about that, but given that the Internet is as big a threat to the power (and self-importance) of Big Media folks as it is to the power and self-importance of bureaucrats, I'm inclined to doubt that they'll be much help.


Images from The Empire Strikes Back © 1980 Lucasfilm Ltd. 


So what should we do? To begin with, we should use the power of the Internet to expose this sort of thing, and we should pressure Big Media to report on it, and pressure national governments, in democracies, to support free speech on the Internet. It's clear that they're afraid of us. Let's give them reason.

UPDATE:  Hey, maybe it's already having an effect!  After this column was written, but before it appeared, the current proposal for a U.N. takeover was set aside. But don't expect this to be more than a temporary retreat, and don't take your eye off of them.  Eternal vigilance, and all that.


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