More than a third of the world’s population now uses the Internet. And there are enough mobile phone subscriptions for nearly every person on the planet, with many phones tied to the Web. So what other trend closely follows this growth? Almost every government wants to shape, tap, or curtail the Internet.
Take, for example, Cyber Monday. This day of shopping after America’s Thanksgiving holiday is now the biggest online shopping day of the year. In fact, more than 10 percent of all US retail spending is expected to take place on the Internet during the 2012 holidays. This growth has fueled pressure on Congress to pass a bill in coming weeks allowing states to tax out-of-state online retailers.
Or take a move in Europe to slap a fee on Web content providers such as Facebook and Google. Or consider Russia’s call for governments to be able to control Internet domain names. In many Muslim countries, leaders seek global restrictions on religious blasphemy. The United States wants agreements with other countries to prevent cyberattacks. And Iran has tried to cut itself off from the Internet and create its own domestic digital network.
This trend among governments to come to grips with the Internet’s challenges and opportunities will be on full display in December. More than 190 nations will meet to adjust the governance of global communications. They are gathering under a United Nations body, the International Telecommunications Union, or ITU, which has not updated its rules since 1988 – or before the Internet went public.
More than 1,300 proposals will be considered during the 11-day meeting. ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré expects a new treaty will bring “a light-touch regulatory approach.” That alone has brought calls in the West for the ITU to avoid a collective assault on the Internet.
The Internet is now maintained largely by private interests, such as engineers. Its very structure is based on openness in a widely distributed network of computer users. It relies on freedom as much as electrons, and trust as much as wires. These values are precious and are vulnerable to coercive measures.
The Internet is also still new enough that it has a frontier quality to it. It breeds innovation and a “creative destruction” of old ideas. While its excesses, such as child pornography, do require suppression, most activities represent experiments in new ways of business, education, and so on. Government controls imposed today may easily be aimed at a moving target and out of date tomorrow.
The best controls on the Internet come from users. Private interests have helped many consumers deal with privacy issues and identity theft. The more the Internet enhances access to information, the more it also evokes reason and shared responsibility among individuals.
Any ITU action should support the Internet’s advancement, not divert or suppress it. After two decades of public use, the Internet has brought the world closer, spreading ideas, commerce, and social connections. Governments need more patience, rather than more plans in trying to deal with it.