Cuba, Iran lash out at Internet freedom

African and other Third World nations criticize "disorderly" Internet expression and the "neo-colonial" United States.

TUNIS, Tunisia--Cuba, Iran and African governments lashed out at the U.S. government this week, charging that the Internet permits too much free speech and that the way it is managed must be reformed immediately.

The U.S. and other Western nations "insist on being world policemen on the management of the Internet," Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who has been the country's leader since 1987, said at a United Nations information society summit here.

"Those who have supported nihilistic and disorderly freedom of expression are beginning to see the fruits" of their efforts, Mugabe said, adding that Zimbabwe will be "challenging the bully-boy mentality that has driven the unipolar world."

These criticisms demonstrate that a detente reached at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) on domain name management has hardly resolved long-running disputes about Internet management, the primacy of the English language online, and the so-called digital divide between nations with functioning economies and those with dysfunctional ones. The deal resulted in the creation of a U.N. Internet Governance Forum expected to meet in Greece in 2006.

"Fidel Castro, the unflinching promoter of the use of new technologies," believes "it is necessary to create a multinational democratic (institution) which administers this network of networks," said the WSIS delegate from Cuba.

In Cuba, only people with government permission can access the Internet, owning computer equipment is prohibited, and online writers have been imprisoned, according to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based free speech watchdog group.

Too often, the Internet is used for the "propagation of falsehoods," said Mohammad Soleymani, Iran's minister of communication and information technology.

Soleymani called for the elimination of the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)--which approves new top-level domain names--in favor of United Nations control.

"Changing the current Internet governance to a participatory, legitimate and accountable system under an international authority is imperative," he said.

But changes proposed by Third World countries that would give them more influence are "being rejected because they are not facilities managed by the Breton Woods institution by the West's neo-colonial desires," charged Zimbabwe's Mugabe, referring to a post-World War II agreement that led to the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Mozambique Prime Minister Luisa Diogo predicted the struggles to replace ICANN were not over, saying that "it is a matter of justice and legitimacy that all people must have a say in the way the Internet is governed." ICANN does have an international board of directors, including members from Senegal, Morocco, and Nairobi, but critics say that's not enough.

A recurring criticism of the WSIS summit was that wealthier nations had not done enough to help poorer ones take advantage of the Internet.

"The proceeds have not been equally shared by developing and developed countries," said Sudan President Omar Ahmad al-Bashir. "The digital divide is growing between the rich and the poor countries."

Economists generally agree, however, that investors prefer nations with a respect for property rights, the rule of law and a functioning court system--which means that few African nations make the list.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, offers an Index of Economic Freedom. The index finds a close correlation between wealth and a stable, functioning government. Wealthy regions like Hong Kong, the U.S., and Switzerland respect economic rights, the index shows, while poor nations like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran and Cuba show the least respect for them.

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