Web of the Free (MARK A. SHIFFRIN and AVI SILBERSCHATZ, 10/23/05, NY Times)

American values caused the Internet to emerge and evolve as a medium of freedom. While there is a standard of transcendent decency that can and should regulate Internet communication in such matters as child pornography, there are standards of national self-interest that vary from country to country. China sees the Internet as part of its internal infrastructure and seeks to govern it as such, monitoring and censoring communications that include words like “liberty,” “Tiananmen Square” or “Falun Gong,” and going after dissidents who use the Internet.

Internationalizing control of a medium now regulated with a loose hand by a nation committed to maximizing freedom would inevitably create more of an opening for countries like China – a strong proponent of imposing some international supervision of Icann – to exert more pressure on internet service providers. More broadly, international regulation could enable like-minded governments to work in concert to deem certain thoughts impermissible online. It is all too possible that minority political or religious expressions would be widely repressed under a doctrine of the greater good imposed by a collective of governments claiming to know what’s best, limiting what may be expressed online to whatever, say, the United Nations General Assembly, the European Union, or the Arab League, might deem reasonable.

Any society may, of course, choose to create its own balkanized domestic version of the Internet, an Intranet within its borders that it regulates as it pleases. It could then still do within its borders many of the things done by the Internet, like Brazil’s online tax collection system, but would not enjoy the online privilege of worldwide interaction.

The Internet is an attractive commercial infrastructure for all societies, even oppressive ones. But the string attached to its creation by America is that it must be used within a context of freedom, both economic and political. That is a democratic value that we should not be shy about exporting. Accepting that commitment to online freedom should be the price that foreign governments must pay for the blessing of the Internet in their national economic lives.

America must be the spider, not just one of the flies.

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