I'm writing from Baku, Azerbaijan, where I'm speaking at the Internet Governance Forum, a United Nations conference for representatives of governments, industry and nonprofit groups to discuss Internet policy issues. It's not a rule making body but a forum for conversation where every delegate -- including young people from several countries -- exchange views on how -- or whether -- to "govern" the Internet.
Most speakers, including U.S. Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary Lawrence Strickling, who addressed the opening ceremony, argue that the Internet should remain "free from governmental control ... to preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet today." Strickling was reacting to a treaty proposal from the U.N's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that could impose some unwelcome regulations if some countries get their way
Even though the Internet evolved from work funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, it's been largely an unregulated space where companies, users, standards groups and governments have been making up the rules and establishing norms as we go along.
It was around 1994, after the release of Mosaic -- the first easy to use Web browser -- that the commercial Internet began to take off. Since then there have been many attempts at regulation, including the U.S. Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was overwhelmingly passed by Congress but later mostly struck down by the Supreme Court after a legal challenge led by the American Civil Liberties Union,
Ironically, just as the Internet Governance Forum was getting underway, Russia started enforcing a controversial new law that would allow the government to ban or block websites with objectionable material. The law, according to Russian officials, is designed to protect children from child pornography and sites that promote drug use, suicide and political extremism. But several Russians I spoke with when I was in Moscow in February told me that it will likely be used by the Putin administration to suppress political speech.
I had traveled to Russia to give two speeches on how it's possible to protect children without violating Internet freedoms. I gave the first speech at a Safer Internet Day event sponsored by a nonprofit group, but just as I was about to step up to the podium the following day at a government sponsored event, the moderator called the session to an end. They claimed, of course, that they just ran out of time. But a Russian colleague confirmed that what they really ran out of was tolerance for what I had to say.
Most delegates here in Baku are opposed to government regulation but agree there need to be standards, such as the website naming conventions that are coordinated by the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Other international bodies handle Internet "plumbing," setting technical standards for the flow of information between service providers. But with the exception of issues such as child pornography, most people here agree that governmental bodies should stay clear of regulating content, even if that content may be offensive to many people.
Of course, some governments do control content. There is the "great firewall of China," which bans Facebook and most U.S.-based blog networks. Iran may launch a national intranet that bans foreign sites. Iran, China and Russia are among the countries urging the United Nations to create a regulatory framework.
My role at IGF is to speak on panels regarding Internet safety and child protection. While I'm in support of International efforts to ban child pornography, I remain opposed to laws restricting what children can see or do online, preferring to leave that in the hands of families.
One of my panels focused on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that, among other things, guarantees children "the right to freedom of expression," including "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice."
The convention acknowledges that the exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions. But it sets out a broad framework that not only protects children from government censorship but, arguably, from restrictions imposed by schools or even their own parents. That makes the provision somewhat controversial not only in totalitarian states but also in democracies, including the United States, where some worry that it limits parental rights.
European laws protect children's privacy even from their own parents. U.S. parents have a great deal of legal authority over their children, but there is nothing in the First Amendment that says you have to be an adult to have free speech rights. That doesn't mean that kids get to surf the Internet at 3 a.m. or visit porn sites, but -- as I interpret it -- it does mean they have the freedom to express themselves and seek out information and opinions. Freedom can be messy, but it sure beats the alternatives.
Contact Larry Magid at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.