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Who's in charge?

February 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if an industry grows successfully, governments think that it must be in need of taxation and regulation.

So it is with the internet.  At present, no one controls or taxes the internet, but that happy position is under constant threat; never more so that just now.

For the time being no one, and particularly no government, controls the network of computers we call the internet.  This is one reason why it has grown so fast and developed the way that people, rather than governments, want it to.

Of course there are local efforts to control it; the notorious Great Firewall of China is a gateway through which all Chinese internet traffic flows, and is fiercely monitored, filtered and censored.  Iran, North Korea and others try the same thing.

However, until now there has been no serious international attempt to restrain the way the internet develops, but there have recently been considerable efforts to cobble together some sort of United Nations based treaty under which participating countries would cede control of their national internet to the UN.

This fills me with dread.  It would inevitably mean the creation of a huge Web Authority Control of Knowledge Organisation (let’s call it WACKO), with thousands of staff, whose main activity would be to make life difficult for those of us who use the internet.  For example, at present we don’t need permission to create a website, but it isn’t hard to imagine WACKO changing that. 

Of course WACKO would have to financed and the current absurd proposal in the treaty is that rules that apply to telephone calls should somehow be transferred to the internet; in other words, if you run a website, and transmit information from it to someone else, you pay.  In practice, of course, this would kill the whole thing; websites would be ruined if they were popular.  Ridiculous.

This is typical of the bureaucratic approach; it simply considers how the internet can be milked, rather than seeking to enhance the benefit of the self-regulated, fast growing and flexible network that it currently is.

The internet is not run, but has been enthusiastically grown, by technicians all over the world; they meet in virtual volunteer groups to agree advances in techniques and protocols at a technological level, aimed only at making the internet easier to use.  Anyone can join in; those who are out of their depth soon drop out.  It is an almost purely peer regulated academic approach.

This is a very flexible and responsive system, not hidebound by procedures, agendas, empire building or the risk of losing your job; it has never sought to tax or regulate the internet or its content and simply tries to make it work better.

However, you can be sure that if WACKO were ever set up, that estimable process would grind to a halt.  Most technicians are interested in technology, not rules and regulations, and certainly not terms of reference, constitutions, statutes and all the other bureaucracy that would inevitably appear with WACKO.  As a consequence, the internet would begin to be run by officials and civil servants, rather than dedicated technicians who love their craft.  Given that the dead hand of bureaucracy usually what stifles any growing industry, I hope it never gets a grip of the internet.

Rather to my surprise, in America the House of Representatives and the Senate are with me; they have both just voted, almost unanimously (which is pretty unheard of), against any such UN proposal.

As I write, there is a conference of 193 countries taking place in Dubai at which this is all being hotly debated.  You can read how they get on at, but I will be returning to this subject soon.  It’s not something to be taken lightly. The internet is a genuinely international affair; let’s try and keep it above politicians.