Internet Control, Free Speech Key Topics at UN Summit

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - A major U.N. summit on the Internet got underway in Tunisia Wednesday, with the sensitive issue of how the Net is managed topping the agenda.

The Internet's infrastructure is supervised by a not-for-profit group formed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, but many developing countries want the U.S. to relinquish control to the U.N. or some other multilateral body.

Washington has resisted the call from countries such as China and Iran, which often are criticized for censoring the Internet in a bid to stifle anti-government dissent.

Most governments argue that no single country should have too much authority over a global medium, and an alternative proposal by the European Union suggested a new, inter-governmental body to establish principles for running the Internet.

Last-minute preparatory talks held in Tunis on Tuesday were aimed at resolving differences over what is known as "Internet governance" before the opening of the three-day World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Reports from non-governmental groups attending the talks indicate possible movement towards agreement on setting up some type of multi-country Internet Governance Forum -- but questions on "oversight" issues and the role of the U.N. in this process remained gray areas.

Internet governance is threatening to eclipse other important issues, including steps to address the "digital divide" by making the Net more widely accessible in the developing world.

One issue sure to come up is that of free speech and how some authoritarian regimes seek to manage their citizens' access to online information.

"Governments realize that they cannot live without the Internet, that to shut the country out from the World Wide Web would be to close the country to the world economy. But to one degree or another, they have also sought to control the uses of this technology," Human Rights Watch said in a report on online censorship released Tuesday.

Critics have placed Tunisia in this category, and questioned the appropriateness of allowing a government that tightly controls the media and blocks access to critical websites to host the WSIS.

International media NGOs had planned a freedom of expression event under the auspices of the WSIS on Tuesday afternoon, but pulled out to protest and highlight recent actions by Tunisian authorities.

Steve Buckley of the Tunisia Monitoring Group, a coalition of 14 organizations, said from Tunis late Tuesday the decision to cancel the event was made after police manhandled local and foreign NGO representatives on Monday.

The scuffles stymied efforts to prepare for a "citizens' summit" on the sidelines of the WSIS. Earlier, a series of venues for this NGO event were made unavailable, with various reasons given.

"We're 99 percent certain the real reason was pressure from the Tunisian authorities," Buckley said.

"As is normal at U.N. conferences, civil society should be able to organize side events on the margin on the summit where they should be able to meet freely and express themselves freely," he said.

This was particularly important in Tunisia because the government had refused to recognize a number of local NGOs, thus making them unable to attend the official WSIS.

Buckley said the Tunisian government appeared to be "in a state of complete denial," and was behaving in a "clearly counterproductive manner, in terms of the impact on the way the country is seen in the eyes of the world."

"One might think that a world conference on improving global Internet access represents a prime chance for the government to reverse its reputation for intolerance of dissent, but the day's events proved it to be an opportunity missed," Human Rights Watch said in a statement, referring to Monday's incidents.

Earlier, a French newspaper reporter was beaten, stabbed and gassed by unknown assailants. The Tunisian government denied charges that plain-clothes police attacked the Liberation journalist.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy appealed to the Tunisian authorities, in the light of the recent incidents, "to do everything to guarantee freedom of information and the freedom of journalists to exercise their profession."

'Sense of normalcy'

Freedom speech violations are one argument raised against proposals to allow abusive governments, via the U.N., to have a greater say in how the Internet is managed - including imposing restrictions on its use.

Buckley said it looked unlikely that the Internet governance question would be resolved in Tunisia this week.

In the meantime, proving to be more pressing was "the day-to-day Tunisian practices of systematic Internet blocking - which are not by any means unique to Tunisia, of course. They are very common in several Arab world countries, China and elsewhere.

"The trouble with [the U.N.] having the conference in Tunisia is that it gives that approach a sense of normalcy."

See earlier story:
Tug-of-War Over Internet Control (Nov. 11, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow