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America, the UN and the Future of Communications

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In May of this year, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and other UN organizations such as UNESCO, UNDP and UNCTAD, are scheduled to convene in Geneva to talk about regulation of the growth and development of the Internet.

With the Middle East and, frankly, the world, staging protests, America may have mixed feelings about creating the Internet and being the lone superpower in charge. After all, with the invention of the worldwide web, Facebook, Twitter and browsers galore, the world can get information on almost anything, anytime, anywhere. Maybe it is better if oversight of this tool of economic and political force is out of our hands.

Whatever position we take, perhaps the United Nations will eventually get control over the future of the Internet; but what we plan to do, if anything, is a mystery.

The turmoil in Egypt and elsewhere aside, the United States has been variously accused of cultural imperialism, electronic colonialism or information apartheid for the last 30 years. We have faced national content restrictions, trade embargos on software, music and films and even so-called privacy protection schemes intended to reverse the flow of communication around the world, to a 20 year effort by UNESCO to create a new treaty calling for a "free but balanced flow" of communications, goods and services.

Thanks to satellite technology and the growth and widespread use of the Internet, capitalism is clearly in triumph the world over. More good news is that most countries in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and in the southern hemisphere have permitted some form of commercial television. They have also deregulated their telephone and broadcast monopolies permitting some form of foreign investment and generally promoting international communications, all of which in turn have ushered in the new era of globalization.

Private sector companies have made investments all over the world and now operate somewhat seamlessly producing global goods and services for worldwide consumption. Indeed, the difficulty for many governments is that the global corporations they expect to regulate or otherwise control are much larger than most governments. Perhaps because the corporations themselves are somewhat stateless and as a result national governments are losing their ability to control much of what happens within their jurisdiction. This has heightened the level of concern and frustration.

Consequently national political leaders are looking for ways to rein in the power and influence of global telecom and media providers as they promote their own Internet-based economy and play an increasingly larger role in shaping the policies of international organizations like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and UNESCO.

The fight over ICANN (the Corporation for Assigned Names and Number) -- a southern California corporation operating with a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which began in a conference in Tunis, Tunisia in the Mediterranean, sponsored by the UN and its sister agencies -- was only the opening salvo. It is not surprising that the idea of forming a special international agency to regulate ICANN failed at Tunis as the agenda and impetus for change was too narrow. This may change as nations around the world awaken to the importance of creating a robust communications infrastructure. They will likely be less dependent and less willing to accept what has been considered a one-way flow of information and communications goods and services from the United States.

National regulators and policy makers worldwide are looking for some way to harness Internet growth and development, and of course, control the flow of communications in the world. Not surprisingly, concerns with the U.S.'s dominance of media flow do not extend to the developing nations alone. Europe and other developed nations have expressed frustrations too.

So what will be the U.S. position? Indeed, what if anything is the U.S. doing to meet the challenges and concerns of the rest of the world? It isn't clear.

All this may seem arcane and distant to the average American. Perhaps too little has been said or written about these issues. Perhaps most Americans don't care or simply distrust the UN system. Yet unless the U.S. has a plan to develop a strategy we haven't heard about, negotiate an alternative to what we hear being considered or establish global polices, which are in America's interests but satisfy the worldwide hunger for the bold new future promised by the growing Internet, our own future may be in peril.