Digital Neocolonialism or Benevolent Hegemony?

The Internet’s capacity for making information seamlessly accessible is even more impressive given its largely unregulated and decentralized nature. This freedom from regulation has allowed superior technologies like Google to quickly make themselves the standard. Yet although the protocols and codes for the Internet belong to the private sector, important components of the Internet rest within the grasp of a single power: the United States government. This aspect of the Internet poses important questions about its capacity to remain free from centralized control. Is the Internet just an extension of the tacit American empire or even a resurgence of colonialism? Moreover, should such control remain in the hands of the United States or, as proposed by some members of the global community and the United Nations, should it be transferred to an international institution? Before we judge the United State’s role in Internet regulation, we must first lay out how the Internet works and where the US fits in. The Internet is “not so much set as a thing, but as a language or an agreement to use a certain protocol,” observes Jim Harper, Director of Communications at the Cato Institute. This language is non-proprietary and allows anyone with basic resources to participate. Neither the United States nor any other foreign power has control over this component of the Internet. However, the United States does have control over the Domain Names System. The DNS assigns domain names ( .com, .net, .org) and connects them to specific numbers that identify a computer on a given network. This system is run by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private organization commissioned by President Clinton in 1998.

American Control in Perspective

ICANN’s history has been controversial to say the least. Critics everywhere attack its lack of transparency, while international opponents of the system place special emphasis on its connection with the U.S. government. The second point has some merit. The US government has direct oversight over ICANN, while its Governmental Advisory Committee, comprised of representatives from foreign countries, has little, if any sway. In theory ICANN can, at the behest of the US government, take a country off the Internet. In an article for Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Cukier suggests that little “would prevent Washington [. . .] from one day choosing, say, to knock Iran off the Internet by simply deleting its two-letter moniker, ‘ir,’ from the domain name system.” The capacity to simply remove a country from electronic map seems dangerous, given the importance most experts and laymen alike assign to having a free and decentralized Internet.

Yet rather than using its power in pursuit of American interests, ICANN has administered the DNS fairly and efficiently. While not completely immune from the sway of the American government, the organization has been separated enough to resist the pressures of Congress. In fact, the organization can, in Harper’s opinion, “insulate the Internet from political meddling” that could be expected if it where in the hands of an international body or other individual nations. ICANN allows the United States to exercise what Cukier calls a “benevolent hegemony.” At the expense of not being a particularly open or plural organization, ICANN and the United States have at least helped preserve the progressive nature of the Internet. While it maintains the power to act unilaterally in pursuit of its interests, the government’s responsible management of the DNS has promoted actual freedom rather than just the semblance of freedom.

Alternatives to US Control

Nonetheless, the global community has called, albeit without a coherent voice, for various reforms that would strip ICANN of its oversight powers. France has proposed an intergovernmental approach to replace ICANN. This solution, however, favors an already powerful group of nations that do not necessarily represent the spectrum of Internet users. Other nations like China have called for the creation of an international treaty organization much like the UN to replace ICANN. On top of all these proposals, the UN in its 2003 World Summit on the Information Society has strongly argued for a similar international oversight, perhaps even its own. The basic rationale among these reforms is to end the US’ singular authority and transfer power to a more globally representative body.

Among these various proposals, the United Nations’ suggestion is probably the only one worth considering. Yet while the UN proposal is simple, its implications are complex and rather unsettling. The proposal merely calls for a Global Internet Policy Council, under UN oversight, that would assume ICANN’s duties.

Yet “it is fairly clear from all the talk of taxation, regulation and curing spam and spyware that the UN has grand plans for subjecting the Internet to much heavier political control,” argues Harper. “The desire to take control of the Internet is probably motivated as much by a desire to topple US hegemony as any serious need for change in how the Internet operates.” The proposal would also transfer power to a “swarm of bureaucrats from across the globe,” as Harper put it. In short, the UN proposal pays attention to international diplomacy at the expense of being blind to the system’s real needs. The current set of alternatives are weak and impractical at best. Yet the current system leaves too much to be desired for us to ignore reform entirely. The system of US control is efficient, but much too autocratic. An international governing body should be created that incorporates members of the global community based on the level of Internet penetration in the country. Just like organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, this governing body would grant membership according to contribution. Unlike the IMF, however, influence will be based on current usage rather a country’s initial contribution to the system. The US enjoys the highest percentage of Internet penetration as a percent of the society. 2005 statistics posit this diffusion to be roughly 70%. When compared with possible opponents, such as Europe (with only 35% percent penetration), the United States has an undeniable advantage. This system would still allow the US to exercise de facto hegemony over the DNS while also giving the regulatory body the legitimacy of a global institution. In doing so, it would preserve much of the efficiency related to the current arrangement.

The broader issue is how exactly to ensure the freedom and neutrality of institutions that in themselves promote freedom. There is no question that elements of the Internet require some supervision. As it stands, the most effective method to provide such supervision is through the “benevolent hegemony” of a singular power. Nevertheless, this irony, whereby progress can only be continued through singular rather than shared authority, is still unsettling. Moreover, the infeasibility of shared power makes singular authority, while occasionally attractive, the only practical option. The Internet, like most revolutionary and progressive concepts, needs simplicity, accessibility, and the peculiar support of a sole power.