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 had its final meeting in Tunis this week. 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.
ICANN does not control the Internet, at least in the Tunisian sense. Apart from minimal administration - the online equivalent of ensuring users have distinct phone numbers - it leaves power in the hands of users. The rapid growth of the Internet, and its economic and social utility, are the result of its decentralised design and private control.
The proposed UN bureaucracy would curtail the freedoms that have driven the Internet revolution. The former Chinese Government official Houlin Zhao, a director of a potential new administrator, the UN's International Telecommunications Union, says:
Anything which concerns the future development of the Internet will be part of the question of Internet governance. It covers a very wide range of topics, not just related to technology development, service development, but also policy matters, sovereignty, security, privacy, almost anything … freedom of speech seems to be a politically sensitive issue.
It certainly is in China, which runs the world's most repressive Internet censorship regime. True to form, the UN might elect China to chair the Internet regulator's "free expression" subcommittee, Iran to chair "counter-terrorism" and Cuba to chair "e-commerce". The appeal to dictatorships is obvious, but why is Europe backing this? The first answer is doctrinaire internationalism. Regardless of ICANN's quiet achievements, and despite UN inefficiency and corruption, some Europeans would sacrifice real-world success for the unrealistic ideal of global governance.
The second answer is economics. The Internet is a technological embodiment of US capitalism. With the US economy outpacing highly taxed, over-regulated European competitors in exploiting new technology, Europe is keener to hamstring US enterprise than to pursue reforms.
Domain names can be registered in a few minutes at negligible cost. Imagine the cost and regulation under a UN licensing system.
The UN's 1999 Human Development Report advocated huge spending on "community" Internet facilities - but not private access - for developing countries, to be funded by taxing Internet use in the developed world.
Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Trying to increase global information flow by taxing it is odd even by UN standards. Free societies with high Internet use, such as the US, would be penalised to fund countries such as Tunisia.
Fortunately, the Bush Administration, backed by congressional Democrats and Australia, has rejected surrender of the Internet to UN regulation. George Bush's critics claim this will fracture the Internet, as dissenting countries will set up their own root servers (Internet "telephone directories"). That is a hollow threat. The bulk of useful information and economic transactions on the Internet originate in the US. Nations that isolate themselves from the real Internet will injure mainly themselves.
The Internet is a powerful agent of economic progress, political liberalisation and democracy. To subordinate it to a UN bureaucracy dominated by dictators and economic Luddites would be a travesty.