BOSS OF THE INTERNET

WTO isn't the only multinational who wants to rule the world.

The luckiest break in the history of the Internet was that it was allowed to develop virtually unregulated for a generation before organizations like UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the WTO (if you don't know by now I'm not going to tell you) stepped in. Now that the politicians and the world have noticed the Net's vast possibilities, it seems like everyone wants to put their two cents in—or take their two cents out.

Or, rather, one cent per 100 e-mails. Even as WTO Net proposals fell by the wayside in the Seattle streets, UNESCO representatives were meeting in Paris with a potentially more sweeping agenda for internationalizing the Net. Both WTO and UNESCO have called for discussion of issues ranging from regulation to taxation—and the conversation may be more than American consumers (and the politicians that love them) are ready to hear.

The "digital divide" between Internet haves and have-nots has become a popular item of scrutiny, both in the US (where Department of Commerce studies indicate that 30 percent of white households have Net access, compared with just 11 percent of African- and Latin-American homes) and internationally. On the world stage, the divide is a split between the well-wired US/European axis and the developing nations of Latin America and Africa, who feel disenfranchised by both the "economic colonialism" of the West's Net lead and, more amorphously, by Western (read: US) mores governing the Net's content.

The Paris UNESCO summit held on November 30 and December 1 was preceded by a questionnaire distributed by the French government to over 60 participants. Respondents were asked to rank the importance of various Net-regulation issues. Among the proposals: a "bit-tax"—a revised Marshall Plan, minus the world war—levied byte-by-byte on online communications in wired countries and paid out to developing nations seeking to bring their Net connections, literally, up to speed. This plan was suggested by the European Commission and seconded later by the United Nations Development Program.

The summary shied away from recommending hard-and-fast rules in the short term, noting that it will still be several years in Europe, and more still in Africa and Latin America, before the Internet is present in a significant number of homes. (There's a general push to refrain from "enclosing the contracts of tomorrow in the regulations of yesterday" with both UNESCO and the WTO for this reason.) Most countries agreed that although it needs to be addressed, regulation is not an urgent matter as the Internet is not, in fact, currently lawless. Several countries can list Internet-related cases settled by their own courts within the framework of existing law.

Nevertheless, all kinds of regulations were recommended in the summary. According to questionnaire results, the most desired regulations involve "protecting the children." This "protection" involves internationally educating the public in order to help parents supervise their own children's use of the Internet.

Co-regulation to be carried out at both the international and national levels was deemed to be the most suitable solution—and that's when the dogpile began, as countries attempt to work out who and how.

Germany observed that auto-regulation works properly only when accompanied by an international control administration, "regulated auto-regulation." Several entities advanced the idea of "codes of good conduct," ethical codes developed by a special committee to be imposed by the previously mentioned "regulating auto-regulators." A few countries wanted special commissions to be set up for regulation purposes within selected main regulation bodies (regulation of the regulators).

Australia, Canada, and the European Commission recommended labeling sites according to content. Installation of telephone complaint "hotlines" was proposed and, of course, so was the desire for reliable filtering software packages (self-regulation). Farther afield (at least to US thinking), Singapore recommended licensing content providers so that they must adhere to a set of guidelines determined by the ultrarestrictive Singapore Broadcast Authority. Anonymity was another freedom some countries would like to abolish.

In the end, almost all countries agreed that the best legal framework would be to adapt current TV/radio regulations to the Internet—a stance that has been hotly debated in the US, where the courts have preferred to treat the Net as analogous to the less-restricted printed press. Chillingly, all countries agreed that it is both impossible and undesirable to attempt to develop a world conception of freedom of expression in order to regulate content—leaving open the real possibility that free speech will take a backseat to the most restrictive common denominator.

Looking back, allowing the French government to manage this process was a good sign that the US was in for a hard time. The Chirac government believes that the US dominates far too much of the world stage both culturally and economically. The summary of the Paris queries stated that Internet regulation allows for a better sharing of knowledge and wealth only if we can eliminate unequal access to the Internet: "Far from being a global village or a planetary media, the Internet today, in all cases, is clearly dominated by a few countries in the North."

This domination was summed up as "economic colonialism," and to that end almost half of the UNESCO summit was devoted to debate over whether northern countries should subsidize Internet access in the southern hemisphere. This suggestion was led by Africa, particularly Nigeria, whose delegate actually did propose a "Marshall Plan" where tax dollars from wealthy countries would wire Africa. The United States is the main country catching the wave, so US surfers would pay in most of the funds.

Good luck collecting. Haunted by our own digital divide, Americans are unlikely to OK funding for international Net development before our own citizens are fully wired. There's also the cultural difficulty of getting people to pay by volume; as spam connoisseurs know, a protest of the bit-tax (to be allegedly imposed by the US Postal Service) is a staple of the genre. Finally, getting the US government to make any kind of payouts to the United Nations is a problem. Considering the amount of effort it took to simply get the US to pay its back UN dues earlier this year, one suspects that getting an accurate tally of the amount owed— never mind the collection process—would be all but impossible.

The WTO discussions, in contrast, fell into three clear-cut economic categories: development of e-commerce, enforcement of regulations to protect consumers and fight crime, and extension of access to the electronic marketplace.

Once upon a time, it was relatively easy to track who produced goods, who consumed goods, and how goods got from sellers to buyers. Physical goods are easily measured, value-add generated through the industrial and distribution process easily traced, and consumption points easily located. These days commercial activity is much harder to track, as activity on the Internet and World Wide Web is concentrated in largely invisible information transactions.

This is in some ways the domestic Net sales-tax debate writ large, with one side arguing that taxation will throttle e-commerce in the crib and the other claiming that not taxing the Net is unfair to both traditional businesses and taxpayers.

The international development of e-commerce, by Western lights, relies heavily on a duty-free cyberspace. Imposed duties would be hard to collect, and policing collection would slow the growth of e-commerce and encourage that growth to take place outside the law. The WTO work group (conceived in Geneva at last year's conference) seeks to ensure that electronic products, predicted to reach $3 trillion untaxed dollars globally by 2003, will be protected by WTO trade principles.

The Geneva work group created four separate councils—the General Council, Goods Council, Services Council, and TRIPs Council—corresponding to the range of WTO disciplines (intellectual property, services, government procurement, and technical barriers to trade). The issues addressed by the four work groups range from the adequacy of existing WTO commitments in capturing the range of electronic commerce activities to how electronic products fit with the traditional WTO classification schemes (that is, whether a given product is a good or a service).

WTO work groups also addressed the economics and implementation of e-commerce in developing countries—the mirror image of the UNESCO discussions. Discussion centered around building the infrastructure and technology, currently entering those countries on a wave of investments thanks to US market-opening efforts—at least according to the US delegation.

The WTO was prepared to discuss these topics at the Seattle Ministerial, but meeting time was spent debating agricultural subsidies, environmental protection, and labor-standards issues. US Secretary of Commerce William Daley reported during the conference that "because the debates at the plenaries and in the hallways have been on controversial issues, e-commerce has not yet come up."

He was, however, confident that all WTO countries would agree to extend the current ban of Internet duties and taxes on goods and services delivered via cyberspace for 18 to 24 months: "By the time that extension expires more countries will appreciate what the Internet can do, and we'll eventually see a permanent ban." Surprising news, perhaps, to those making increasingly louder calls for Internet taxation, and highly annoying to UNESCO entities—overshadowed once again by the Battle of Seattle.

 
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