Monday, October 03, 2005

European Union, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba...


The preparatory meeting in Geneva last week for the upcoming World Summit on Information Society turned into a rather embarrasing affair. Potentially, there is a political storm gathering.

Many of the battles leading up to the WSIS are battles for ultimate control over the Internet. Clouded in sweet talk about multilateral solutions and need to replace the United States as the ultimate guardian of the system, a coalition of control states has sought to establish ultimate political control over the net.

With less than total diplomatic finesse, the US has made it clear that it will not accept any changes at all. In the post-Iraq mood in many parts of the world, that's an attitude that unfortunately creates more room for sinister forces to maneuver. An element of flexibility and openness on the US side would not have been out of place.

The Geneva sensation was however a U-turn by the European Union that was as unexpected as it was disturbing.

Suddenly, it introduced a proposal that went a long way towards the position that a number of states headed by Iran had been advocating, opening for a political control mechanism.

There was consternation and embarrasement, I'm told by people who know. And the new European Commission position was evidently applauded by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba, China, Venezuela, Brazil and other control-oriented states. The Americans were predictably enraged.

These are extremely serious issues, and we could well be heading for a rather major political conflict over the issue.

Does the European Commission know what is being done in its name? I doubt it. It seems as if the European position has been hijacked by officials that have been driven by interests that should not be ours.

If these issues are not seen as serious in Brussels, they certainly are in Washington, and Brussels might well expect the issue to figure very high on the trans-Atlantic agenda very fast if it does not clarify its position.

In the meantime, it is important that the issue attracts attention and debate.

We really can't have a Europe that is applauded by China and Iran and Saudi Arabia on the future governance of the Internet. Even those critical of the United States must see where such a position risks taking us.

Apart from the obvious political issues involved - it's not difficult to see what drives the regimes in Beijing, Riyadh or Havanna - there are powerful technical and economic issues at stake. There is a very serious risk that a mechanism of this sort will slow down the pace of innovation and change that has been so tremendously important during the past decade.

The European Union must seriously reconsider its position. And the issue is far too important to be left to face-less officials far from political responsibility.