Opinion: Does the Net belong to America?

Does the United States own the Internet?

You could put up a strong argument for the affirmative. After all, the Internet was created in California on Oct. 20, 1969, and funded by the U.S. military's Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA). And although Tim Berners-Lee (the guy who invented the World Wide Web back in 1990) is a Brit, let's not kid ourselves: The cultural and economic epicenter of the information age remains on the US side of the Atlantic.

But does that mean it's, first and foremost, America's Net?

You could get all libertarian on me and contend that the Internet in fact belongs to each and every wired individual on the planet (even AOL members), but that misses the point. Because the point is this: Like it or not, the Internet is no longer a free-for-all; and, like it or not, the Net cannot remain U.S.-centric. Which begs the question: Should the Internet's stakeholders, from national regulators to companies to Netizens, stop acting like medieval fiefdoms and start taking a more internationalist approach to cyberspace? Because, let's face it, the piecemeal, state-by-state, country-by-country, corporation-by-corporation, approach to everything from data privacy to encryption to Net taxes isn't working.

Up until now the United States has undoubtedly been the Net's top dog, but that can't last. Europe is catching up fast (and may already be ahead in the wireless space), closely followed by Latin America and Asia. In other words, the Net is well on its way to becoming a truly international e-business communications tool.

That's great for the new economy, on both a domestic and a global scale, but it also raises all kinds of conundrums for regulators and individuals. For instance, when I'm sitting before my desktop in San Francisco shopping at a Web site in, say, Australia, how can I be sure I'll receive the goods I pay for, or that the site won't peddle my personal data to other e-tailers? Or what if that same Australian e-tailer is hacked by a data thief in Russia -- where does that leave me, legally?

In international waters, buddy.

When you're surfing a Web site, especially if it's based offshore, you can't assume it operates on the same ground rules for privacy, consumer rights, free speech, taxation or encryption. There are no absolutes.

Likewise, when the United States decides on any given course of action involving the Internet, it cannot assume that's the final word (or even that there is such a thing as a final word anymore). For instance, a few years ago, the Clinton administration fought feverishly to have its key escrow approach to encryption software assumed domestically, only to have it rejected (and all that domestic politicking practically nullified) by the member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Another example was when the United States decided to outlaw online gambling. Fine, but that hasn't stopped countries like Australia and Antigua legalising cybercasinos, which are accessible to any U.S. citizen with a Web browser.

It goes the other way, as well. Under its new Internet censorship regime, Australia has been sending takedown notices to Australian-based sites it deems offensive. Brilliant. Only trouble is, a number of Australian porn sites have neatly sidestepped the regulations by having their sites hosted on U.S. servers.

That could be the moral of the story: The Net doesn't belong to anyone and is therefore ungovernable. Nice notion, but not necessarily the best answer. What if, for instance, considering the Net ungovernable, every level of government in the United States decided to tax any e-commerce that passed through its sphere? And what if the same thing occurred in the realm of international e-commerce? Without a consistent approach, the golden goose that is the new economy could be in for quite a hazing-by-levy from the bureaucrats.

Sure, the Net's too unruly for any one government or corporation to get a chokehold on; like, say, Microsoft did in the operating system market. And I don't think a Net governing body would make things work, either. After all, the United Nations can't even make the United States pay its membership dues.

But it wouldn't hurt if we had a new internationalism to go with our new economy -- if the umpteen regional and national legislatures around the globe passing harebrained rules and regulations on everything from e-privacy to e-gambling to e-censorship started thinking globally before they legislated locally.

The pennies seem to be dropping for the Internet industry. The Internet industry associations of Europe, the United States and Australia have forged official affiliations, and the first international gathering of Net industry groups is earmarked to take place in Australia this December.

Let's hope it's the start of something.

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