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Should the United Nations run the Internet?

That was the topic du jour during a U.N. conference on the future of cyberspace, a gathering CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh notes bordered on the surreal.

The United Nations wants to expand its influence over the Internet, but would it be wise to let that happen?

That question follows the conclusion of a two-day U.N. summit last week, in which delegates from sundry countries such as Cuba, Ghana, Bolivia and Venezula lectured North American, Asian and European countries about how best to run the Internet.

Their demands varied, but the bottom line was the same: They want a piece of the action in just about every way. The event's agenda was breathtakingly broad, taking in everything from spam and privacy to intellectual property, network security and the operation of root domain name servers.

Juan Fernandez, the delegate from Cuba's Ministry of Informatics and Communications, no doubt was sincere in the speeches he delivered at the summit.

The United Nations makes ICANN look like a paragon of political perfection.
Less clear is why a nation that tolerates only one political party and last year imprisoned some 80 journalists and peaceful democracy activists should be a model for enlightened thinking about how to preserve an open and democratic Internet.

Iran was also among the delegates hoping to inject the United Nations into the process of overseeing Internet protocols, domain names and network stability. Before taking these folks too seriously, though, let's recall that Iran ranks in the bottom few percent of the 2004 Index of Economic Freedom, bans more than 10,000 "immoral" Web sites and jailed Iranian journalist and Web logger Sina Motallebi last year.

All this raises the question whether these are nations that should decide the rules for a worldwide Internet.

It is true that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which currently oversees address space and domain names, has its problems. It has moved with the speed of a crippled, three-toed sloth in approving new top-level domains. It is a little too cozy with large trademark holders. It needs to be more completely weaned from the U.S. government.

Developing nations have other legitimate gripes, too. China has been allocated about 45 million global Internet addresses, less than the combined total of Stanford University and IBM. That's hardly reasonable nowadays. But groups like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) have been working hard on

It is hardly clear that the United Nations would do a better job, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that it wouldn't.

The United Nations is home to the world's most bloated bureaucracy, employing more than 56,000 people at salaries roughly twice what they would be paid in the private sector. It refuses to subject itself to independent audits of its finances and does not even publish an annual financial report.

Demands for greater U.N. involvement in the Internet are not new.
What's more, the General Assembly, which had 191 members as of December 2002, has grown estranged from the United States in recent years and is hardly a place for enlightened political discourse.

Yet, the United Nations makes ICANN look like a paragon of political perfection. ICANN posts reasonably complete financial information online, broadcasts its board meetings over the Internet and permits the general public to attend its meetings at no cost. By contrast, writes Ted Carpenter, author of "Delusions of Grandeur: The United Nations and Global Intervention": "Most U.N. members are ruled by authoritarian regimes that rarely even make the pretense of being democratic, and the culture of governance at the United Nations itself is hardly sympathetic to the values of individual rights and tethered government."

Demands for greater U.N. involvement in the Internet are not new. As far back as 1999, a U.N. agency proposed taxing all e-mail messages to pay for development aid. The United Nations hastily backed away from that proposal, however, after prominent members of the U.S. Congress correctly slammed the organization as a "bureaucracy looking to get its greedy mitts on the Internet through new taxes."

While the politics of last week's summit was difficult to decipher and was cloaked in the argot of U.N. bureaucratese, the delegates fortunately didn't seem to be able to agree on specifics.

In a statement, the United Nations seemed to acknowledge this temporary setback, saying it hopes to "better coordinate the work of specialized bodies" like ICANN, the IETF, the Internet Architecture Board and the World Wide Web Consortium, and to "ensure the involvement of all stakeholders"--rather than invent a new organization to supplant them.

The next step is for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to create a "working group on Internet governance" that will make specific recommendations in time for a summit in November 2005.

It is highly symbolic that the United Nations' climactic summit next year will meet in Tunisia, a state that blocks access to many Web sites, spies on its citizens' e-mail and closely controls Internet service providers. The group Reporters Without Borders calls Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali a "predator of press freedom" and claims that he allowed Zouhair Yahyaoui, editor of news site TUNeZINE, to be arrested and tortured.

At next year's event, I'm sure that Tunisian politicians will be happy to share their experiences in how a free and open Internet should be run.