The Freedom of the Seas
Although the blog has historically been a quintessential American phenomenon, it's greatest potential impact will probably be in countries without a working First Amendment. Global Voices Online, a website that is "sponsored by and launched from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School" describes a head-on collision between the Third World blogosphere and Third World courts.
The blog of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, or PCIJ, has made history — of sorts. Last week, the PCIJ was served with a court order to remove this Aug. 12, 2005 post related to an ongoing political scandal. The scandal revolves around taped wiretaps allegedly of Philippine Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordering an election official to rig her election. The President admitted the voice on the tape was hers, but her government claimed that the recordings had been doctored. Opposition politicians seized on the ensuing controversy to lead an aborted attempt at her impeachment.
The PCIJ post revealed information from a police dossier on the background of Jonathan Tiangco, an audio expert presented to dispute the authenticity of the recordings. The post described several criminal cases against Tiangco and mentioned that Tiangco had two wives. In October, Tiangco’s spouse requested a temporary restraining order against PCIJ, which a lower court granted after the Philippine Supreme Court turned down her petition. The order enjoined PCIJ for 20 days from “broadcasting, publishing or posting or causing to broadcast, publish, or post articles and statements similar and related to, or connected and in conjunction with” that blog post. In its post announcing the gag order and the removal of the post, PCIJ directed its readers to look to Google if they wanted to know the deleted post’s contents.
Basically, the PCIJ blogpost contained material which was deemed offensive to one of Mr. Tianco's wives and the court had it taken down. A number of bloggers raised the question of how a judge, especially one in a Third World country, could expect to expunge information from the Internet, when the content might be hosted, mirrored or cached in countries beyond his jurisdiction. The Berkman Center's website contains links to bloggers who see the judges actions as a threat to free expression, unspeakably futile, founded on ignorance or all of the above.
Before anyone laughs too loudly, it is well to go to the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) project of the United Nations website, which is embarked on a crusade to liberate the Internet from United States nongovernance. In a recently concluded meeting in Tunis, WGIG delegates failed to take the root servers away from the United States -- for now. According to Information Week:
World leaders on Friday approved a plan to leave Washington squarely in charge, as they wrapped up a three-day U.N. technology summit in Tunisia's capital. The EU and a host of other countries said, however, that summit delegates had simply delayed the battle for another day by agreeing to set up another multinational forum for debate, instead of tackling the issue now. ... The computers, known as root servers, act as the Internet's master directories so Web browsers and e-mail programs can find other computers. Users around the world check those directories millions of times a day without ever knowing it. Pakistan and other countries wanted an international body, such as the United Nations, to take over the directories.
Alan Anderson, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald noted that it was impossible to attend the Tunis conference without tripping over ironies.
Ronald Reagan once quipped that a government's view of the economy was: "If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidise it." The United Nations, having adopted Reagan's joke as policy, proposes to apply it to the fastest-moving sector of the economy: the internet.
The UN's World Summit on the Information Society has its final meeting in Tunis ... The Tunisian Government and President Ben Ali's family manage all Tunisian internet service providers. Access to international news and human rights websites is blocked. Online political dissenters face prison.
So summit nations are focusing fire on the obvious target: ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) the non-profit US corporation that administers internet protocol addresses and domain names - the internet equivalent of a phone book. The European Union, China, Iran, Cuba and others want a UN organisation to take over the administration, ending US "control" of the internet.
One of the reasons the Internet has been so successful is that it has so far escaped the restraints of Filipino judges, Tunisian government officials and United Nations bureaucrats. Addresses which are published onto the root servers can be resolved and their content displayed, subject to the restrictions of their publishers. The United States, by refusing to regulate the Internet, has occupied the position of an information central banker maintaining the coin of the realm. If lower court Filipino judges and assorted bureaucrats get their way, the pathways of the Internet will be subject to bureaucratic gatekeeping, conducted in the name of "governance". But the proper word would be debasement.
The moment the free flow of packets over the Internet is no longer substantially guaranteed, it will cease to be trusted. Companies which are building businesses worth billions over the Internet protocols would stop if they knew a relative of the Tunisian President had to be placated for commerce to continue. Applications such email, instant messaging, searches, e-commerce, online banking, virtual medicine -- to name a few -- would be at the mercy of bureaucratic caprice, not just in the United States, but in every swamp and backwater imaginable. In the end, governing the Internet, especially in the United Nations sense, might be indistinguishable from destroying it. But one can see how that would appeal to those who yearn for bad, bad old days.