Tech Industry

Perspective: Do-gooders will wreck the Internet

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says a move to give governments a leading role in determining the organization of the Internet could be disastrous.

The do-gooders have found a new cause for 2003: Saving the Internet from the private interests intent on mucking up the cyberlandscape.

Considering that 40 percent of all U.S. citizens have been online for more than three years and that most are able to find the information they seek when surfing the Web (according to a Dec. 29 Pew study on the Internet and American life), that's a curious cause.

No matter. This story line is going to get played out in the next 12 months, and how it concludes will leave an indelible imprint on the future of the Internet.

The only surprise is that these folks took so long to get involved. In a world of nation-states, the pre-Sept. 11 Internet era enjoyed a remarkably long run marked by self-regulation, decentralization and individual control. As the Web went global, I was sure policy-makers would move faster to bend the anarchistic, nobody-owns-it philosophy of the Internet to their liking.

Public interest advocates are making up for lost time. Urging far more muscular government oversight and involvement, they are keen on making sure the public gets to represent its interest in the development of the Internet. One of the most articulate and forceful examples of the something-must-be-done mind-set was recently served up by Zoe Baird, president of the Markle Foundation.

In the December 2002 edition of the periodical Foreign Affairs, Baird argued that government's unique role elevates its importance as an institution for deciding "what public values need to be protected"--even when different governments do not necessarily share the same values.

The most articulate and forceful example of the something-must-be-done school of thought was recently served up by Markle President Zoe Baird.

Backing up her call to action, Baird cited the results of a survey conducted by the Markle Foundation prior to Sept. 11, which turned up a 2-to-1 preference among respondents for government management of rules to protect people, even if that required some regulation of the Internet.

So Baird favors the collaboration of international forums on IT along with multilateral government-sponsored agencies to find a way to allow for government oversight and regulation that would still be as "speedy, agile and technologically savvy as the medium demands." Because the Internet has gone mainstream, Baird concludes it is thus now up to "mainstream governmental institutions" to move in "to protect people from harm and encourage innovation."

Spoken like a true guardian of the commonweal. After all, she was President Clinton's first Attorney General nominee. But as another former U.S. president was wont to say: Let me say this about that.

Baird's bureaucratic instincts lead her to trust in the ability of organizations like the G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force and the U.N. Information and Communications Technologies Task Force to get things done and shape the Internet in a way that would create the most benefit.

But why should we think about the Internet in terms of fairness in the first place?

The people staffing these agencies are hard-working and mean well. But technological innovation-through-committee-work is, at best, a hopeless laboratory concept. To be sure, the new realities of our times require some accommodation with the security and geopolitical environment, but putting government in the driver's seat is a mistake.

That's especially true when the governments in question are cyberscofflaws, such as Saudi Arabia and China, where the authorities block access to Web sites they don't like. In my mind, that should automatically disqualify them from participation in the formulation of policy that affects tens of millions of Internet users. But would any U.N. task force have the guts to make that sort of politically incorrect declaration? I don't think so.

The fact is we will never be able to ensure that all the private and public interests in the world are "fairly" represented. But it's a mistake to think about the Internet in terms of fairness in the first place. Do that and you invite the bureaucrats in to stultify the vitality that first created the World Wide Web.