Internet rights are hard to divine

After unprecedented press attention and high-powered geopolitical bickering, the fight to control the Internet is over and the US has won. But what exactly is the prize?

The last couple of days of the World Summit on the Information Society will be familiar to fans of international posturing — in the absence of workable consensus, the loudest voice forced the game. The US has maintained its grip on the Internet, and the rest of the world meekly follows. Ah, if only it were that simple.

The conference, held in Tunis, saw the US play the doctrine of divine right. There is a natural order of things ordained by God, which includes the US running the Internet. You can tell this is right, says the US, because that's the way things are. Got a problem with that?

This medieval philosophy plays about as well in the international world of 2005 as it did in Great Britain during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when James II played a similar card — and was promptly deposed.

Divine right fell by the wayside not because it was disproved, but because it was irrelevant in the face of Enlightenment. Larger considerations won. So it will be with the US.

The status quo will continue, but at a price. New international bodies have been set up to consider Internet governance: they have little power now, but that's only appropriate. That sort of power can only be gained through working well and gaining respect in the run up to the next international conference in 2010.

Should these new structures perform well, then the US will be in the position of James II — or indeed Elizabeth II — in possession of nominal rights that cannot be exercised lest they be ignored. The Internet is not something that can be governed in the absence of agreement. It only exists through consensus. That's why the US won in Tunis despite much opposition; to disagree at the end would be to destroy. The rest of the world now has five years to create a larger consensus, one that the US itself dare not go against.

The irony lies in the details: the Glorious Revolution that saw the end of divine right produced the English Bill of Rights which in no small measure spawned the American bill of the same name — and helped create the framework for the modern United States. If the US can recognise the same forces at work in a world larger than itself, it will find respect has greater rewards than shouting ever will..

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