Should the United Nations Control the Internet?

This past November, the United Nations sponsored a meeting in Rio de Janeiro with about 1,700 participants from some 90 countries to consider the future direction of the Internet. The most serious issue they dealt with was supported by a group of nations that included China, Cuba, and Iran: Leaders from these countries are pressing for the United States to cede control of the Internet to the UN. The European Union has also proposed a new, multilateral arbitration and dispute resolution forum to control the Internet. Fortunately, it seems that these proposals have been rejected for at least another year.

The American approach to the Internet has been largely to permit it to grow with little regulation other than overseeing the domain name system. Of course, that means that we have to tolerate all kinds of content that is totally inappropriate for civilized human beings. It also means, however, that the Internet has developed into an amazing tool for communication and education.

If an international body were to gain control of the Internet, it would almost certainly give governments the opportunity to censor and regulate content in a way that would destroy much of what is good about it. The Internet would likely end up as a new and unrecognizable entity.

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I’m not just dreaming up a scary scenario. In 2004, the State Department invited me to join a delegation that went to Paris for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The purpose of the meeting was to examine how governments can fight the harmful effects of hate speech on the Internet. My role was to present the U.S. position on free speech. To me, defending free speech was like defending mom, baseball, and apple pie. Unfortunately, when I got to Paris, I was stuck defending terrorists, skinheads, and Nazis.

Unlike the United States, many nations — including Canada and most European countries — criminalize hate speech. As such, racists, Holocaust revisionists, Islamic radicals, homophobes, and seemingly every other intolerant group put their Web pages up on American internet service providers (ISPs). They take full advantage of the First Amendment’s protection of speech, even though many of these Web pages are put up in German, French, Arabic, or other languages, and they are clearly aimed at a non-American readership.

Of course, hate posted in any nation can be accessed from virtually every other nation. As such, the OSCE meeting in Paris was largely a matter of Europeans trying to convince the Americans to find some way to “get around” the First Amendment.

In my presentation, I told an assembly of representatives from 55 nations that tolerance of diverse speech is so ingrained in the American fabric that virtually every school boy and girl knows Voltaire’s famous statement: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Americans fear censorship much more than we fear offensive speech. As such, the First Amendment is not an obstacle to “get around.” It reflects one of our core values.

Being in Paris, I thought it was clever to cite Voltaire. Unfortunately, I don’t think I changed any European minds. An American who spoke later was complimented because he did not exhibit “typical American arrogance.” I guess I did.
Really, though, it’s not arrogance. Our American view is that when speech crosses the line and constitutes an actual threat, harassment, or an incitement to imminent lawlessness, the government is justified in stepping in to stop it. Short of that, we really don’t trust our own government to regulate speech. My guess is that we would trust rights-abusing nations like China, Cuba, and Iran even less. (It is interesting to note how many of the governments pushing hardest for change are also the world’s most repressive when it comes to free speech.)

Defenders of speech restrictions often try to justify their actions by arguing that they are protecting the vulnerable from hate-mongers, but the parties can easily become switched. At the OSCE meeting, one nongovernmental representative argued that evangelical Christian sites that reach out to Jews in an effort to bring them to Christ should be considered anti-Semitic and banned from the Internet.

More incredibly, with all the truly vicious, hate-filled Web pages on the Internet, when the Russian delegation had its turn to speak, it identified the Web sites of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishnas as promoting hate doctrines — because they both purported to set forth “the truth.” According to the Russians, anyone who claims to know and set forth the truth is necessarily engaged in hate speech.

The American delegation thought that this made our point more strongly than anything we could have said.


  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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