Internet governance - unpalatable, but necessary

Our elected leaders want to govern the Internet. If spam and cybercrime are ever to be repelled, we may have to let them

The United Nations should be applauded for its commitment to Internet governance. Since deciding last December that the Internet was a 'global facility' whose management should be 'multinational, transparent and democratic', UN staffers have thrown their energy into the Working Group on Internet Governance.

This group has just begun a 12-month global fact-finding and consultation process -- which was likened to a flying circus last week by WGIG leader Marcus Kummer.

Kummer gave a taste of the WGIG's ambitions last week at London's Royal Society. The atmosphere at this meeting was heavy with mistrust at the idea of governments getting their grubby fingers on Our Internet.

Esther Dyson, former founding chair of ICANN and something of a guru on Internet policy, won plenty of nods from the audience when she declared that the governments of China and America didn't behave in a way that suggested they were the answer to the Internet's problems.

But this ignores the unpalatable reality that politicians have made such a hash of addressing issues such as spam and cybercrime because they haven't talked to each other across borders.

The UK dropped the ball catastrophically last year, for example, by bringing in laws that could have outlawed the sending of junk email, but have actually encouraged the practice. The US's record on spam legislation actually manages to be worse. A multilateral approach would have encouraged a more open, less parochial solution with a better chance of working instead of being tied to local interests.

Of course, legislation is only part of the answer to fighting spam. Politicians could address the technical side too by banging heads together in the Microsoft boardroom. Sender ID might yet be saved if the bizarre insistence on licensing can be ditched. Governments en masse are the only earthly powers of which Microsoft seems aware.

Today, cybercriminals can launch digital attacks from one country at another, safe in the knowledge that the lack of common legislation means extradition would be unlikely if they were caught. Governments already know this is a problem, but without WGIG they are doing little to address it.

Giving our elected representatives the power to govern our Internet may stick in the throat, but it may also be the only way of getting the cooperation needed to fix its flaws.

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