Should International Governments Regulate Your Online Business?

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Does global internet regulation threaten online commerce?. Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Every since its inception, the internet has required a high level of seamless cooperation to make everything work. Up until now, Internet governance has been the undisputed domain (no pun intended) of the United States government. After all, the original ARPAnet came out of the U.S. Department of Defence (DOD), and military (aerospace, telecommunications etc.) applications preceded the Internet's commercial emergence by decades.

However, with the birth of the World Wide Web (WWW) in the mid-1990s, the online world began to go truly global. The U.S. still dominated, but other countries began to slowly carve out their places and gain expertise. Now, control over the technical management of Internet addresses and domains is turning into a geopolitical power play, with Russia, China and several Middle East states leading the charge.

Recently, these countries have suggested that the United Nations (UN) telecommunications arm, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), play a greater role in the management and coordination of web addresses. This could mark a radical change from the present regime, most notably as a transfer of responsibilities away from the U.S.A. As well, the implications of new governance rules on small online entrepreneurs are worth investigating.

The current domain name system (DNS), managed by Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – a non-profit organization on contract from the U.S.

Department of Commerce – has been in place since 1998. As far as it allows anyone from anywhere in the world to access websites, ICANN runs the ultimate democratic tool. So, any change in governance has the potential to compromise true freedom of expression and commerce on the Internet.

Should national governments be responsible for their citizens' and businesses' Internet use, and can they be trusted?

The issues of Internet security, privacy, and government surveillance have come to the fore in recent years, thanks to people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Various high-profile breaches provide fuel for those who want to decrease American influence online. However, if national control of the Internet is pending, what will prevent an authoritarian government from denying individuals the ability to register their domain names?

In part to address concerns over government interference in Internet address administration, the Department of Commerce recently committed to handing over responsibility of DNS oversight to a worldwide group of businesses, public interest groups, academics, and governments by the end of 2015.

Up until now, the United States has resisted calls to replace DNS and disband ICANN in favor of an intergovernmental agency or individual national units that would only manage their countries' domain names. From its origins as a groundbreaking computer network built and used at first exclusively by the U.S government and academics, the Internet has evolved into an effective social and commercial tool used by over a billion people globally on a daily basis.

Conclusion

The growth of generic top level domains (gTLDs) for individual businesses makes the current debate over Internet governance very timely. Department of Commerce spokespeople have stated that they will do whatever is necessary to guarantee the openness, security and stability so essential to the functioning of the Internet.

There have been embarrassing revelations about how governments are compromising the privacy of its citizens, the United States government included. However, the alternatives to the ICANN system being presented so far offer no guarantees of success, let alone improvement to domain name management. What’s really needed today is a lucid examination of the current system's strengths and weaknesses, and how to make it better.

In an increasingly globalized digital economy, it would be a shame if national governments were given the power to impose rules that limited the creativity and entrepreneurship of their citizens., which is why it is imperative for anyone interested in a free and open Internet, including bloggers and online entrepreneurs, to have an active voice in the policies and regulations governing the Internet. 

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