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U.N. eyes Net regulation

Two bodies of the organization are exploring plans that would greatly affect the Net, but it is unclear whether either proposal will ever be enacted.

3 min read
Following the lead of countless other groups, the United Nations is getting into the problematic business of Internet regulation.

Two bodies of the international organization are exploring plans that would dramatically affect the medium, but in both cases it remains unclear whether the proposals will ever be enacted.

One proposal, being considered by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights, would police hate speech on the Internet. A commission meeting to be held this month will explore "means of ensuring responsible use" of the Net, according to an agenda. Topics include technical and legal aspects of "screening racist propaganda."

The human rights commission is charged with implementing international conventions eliminating racial discrimination. It will convene November 10-14 in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss how it can extend its charter to the global network.

A second U.N. group, the International Telecommunication Union, is also considering various forms of Net regulation, having created a "series of recommendations" for implementing standards for the Global Information Infrastructure, a next-generation Internet of sorts.

Internet standards so far have been the province of groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium. Both groups attempt to create uniform protocols so that Net technologies are accessible using a number of different hardware and software platforms.

The activities by the U.N. groups are not the organization's first attempts at governing the Net. Still, they demonstrate that Net regulation is of increasing importance to it.

"It's feeding time at the Internet corral in Geneva," said Tony Rutkowski, a cofounder of the Internet Society and a former executive with the ITU. Rutkowski will present a paper at the human rights commission meeting that opposes attempts to censor hate speech.

Such a plan "will constitute a needless, counterproductive diversion from the wealth of other effective steps that could be taken to implement" the commission's charter of stamping out racism, Rutkowski argues in the paper.

But his objections stem from broader concerns, namely that the culture of the U.N. so fundamentally clashes with that of the Net as to make the two incompatible.

"These are intergovernmental groups that have their own kind of sovereign powers at the international level," Rutkowski said in an interview. "It's a mindset that's totally alien to the Internet but nonetheless is sort of coming into collision with it."

Barbara Dooley, executive director of the Commercial Internet Exchange in Herndon, Virginia, sounded similar reservations about standards for the global information infrastructure being driven by the ITU--an organization that is often characterized as slow to take action.

"In an environment that works on very fast time scales, the old-fashioned kinds of standards processes don't work well because they're too slow to be helpful," Dooley said. She added that because the ITU's constituency is made up of the world's largest phone companies, many of which are state-run monopolies, it may not be suitable for dealing with cutting-edge technologies.

Indeed, the group in the 1980s devoted a great deal of time and resources to push a networking standard that was later snuffed out by a scrappier protocol developed by the U.S. government. That early protocol eventually evolved into TCP/IP, which now forms the underpinnings of the Internet.

Representatives from the ITU were not immediately available for comment. But a press release announcing the recommendations said the "project was established with the aim of responding quickly to market requirements for standards" to establish the emerging network, which will comprise computer and phone networks, cable TV, and other communications media.