Controlling the Internet

December 18, 2003

AS GLOBAL Internet use expands by about 25 percent a year and the once-freewheeling medium evolves into something akin to a public utility, pressures to replace its voluntary, private coordination with tighter government regulation mount from a long list of emerging problems - problems as concrete as the spam swamping e-mail inboxes and as diffuse as foreign ire over U.S. dominance.

Trouble is, that's fertile ground for false fixes that do more harm than good. Take the anti-spam bill signed into law Tuesday by President Bush. It's unlikely to decrease unsolicited e-mail ads as it essentially legitimizes a big share of them.

There's no question spam - now about half of all e-mail - is ruining the most useful cyber-tool by eating up tens of billions of dollars a year in bandwidth and productivity. The solution is better filters and security, because bulk spammers are moving offshore - beyond the reach of the U.S. government.

In the meantime, however, Congress missed a chance to outlaw all unsolicited e-mail ads by simply requiring senders to first receive an opt-in request from recipients, as California tried to require. That's essentially how unwanted faxes - which also rack up costs for recipients - were largely stopped.

Instead, the new bill effectively endorses unsolicited e-mail ads from truthful senders by banning only "spoofing" - spam from senders using forged identities. In other words, don't expect less spam as a result.

Even more misguided is the international movement to take registration of Web addresses from a U.S. nonprofit - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) - and put it and other coordination under the United Nations. At the 200-nation U.N. World Information Summit last week in Geneva, delegates opted to keep this bad idea afloat with a two-year study.

Not that ICANN doesn't need reform, more transparency and perhaps global decentralization; its U.S. critics cast it as a cartel stifling demands to drastically expand the availability of domain names, such three-character address roots as .com, .org and .net. But driving the proposed U.N. takeover are tangents: international anger toward the United States and its Internet control, worldwide disparities in Internet access, and the desire of such nations as China and Cuba to restrict Internet content.

These are real issues, and there certainly is a role for the United Nations and other organizations in, say, helping poorer nations develop the infrastructure to close the global digital divide. But the Internet has thrived without government control and ought to remain managed by the private sector.

It's useful to remember that, as pervasive as Internet use may already seem, the medium is still in its teens. In the long run, it's hard to know what might stifle the Internet faster: unchecked spam clogging systems worldwide or handing its control to a slow-moving, politicized U.N. bureaucracy. Those trying to improve this medium ought to make sure their fixes aren't worse than the problems they purport to cure.

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