The internet has dodged governments keen to bring it under control The internet began life in 1969 as an electronic tool designed to provide the US Department of Defence with secure communications. It has become the world’s news channel, notice board, schoolroom, gossip shop and expanding marketplace handling ever more e-commerce. It is also an all but indestructible battering-ram against the walls of censorship. The internet’s exuberant development came about almost by accident. Because governments were slow to grasp its potential, the internet blossomed as a venture open to all and untrammelled by government regulators. The systems that make it work are organised by technical bodies such as the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Name and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the internet’s domain-name and dot.address systems, the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium. Had the world’s more unsavoury regimes cottoned on earlier, they would have tried to cripple the unruly infant at birth. By the time they realised what was happening, the internet had acquired so many dimensions that it was beyond defining, let alone shutting down. Even with the growing use by governments such as China of cyber-filters to block web connections, no economy can now function without internet technology; and the technology is developing far faster than their capacity to control it. Enter the International Telecommunications Union, whose just-ended United Nations World Summit was ostensibly convened to “bridge the digital divide” by expanding access to cyberspace in technology-poor countries. This summit – which was hosted by a country that severely restricts its citizens’ access to the internet – demonstrated that governments are incapable of discussing information without seeking ways to control its content. In the name of “democratising” this already quintessentially democratic technology, governments sought to bring the American-based systems of domain-management under international, for which read governmental, control. The excuse is that the US could in theory shut down other countries’ domain names. Technically, this is nonsense; if the US ever tried to exert unacceptable controls, competitors would build alternative servers. Yet with this politically correct charade the European Union, to its shame, went along, with even the British Government arguing that the legal status of ICANN “has to change”. Assisted by Canada and Australia, the Americans have seen off the would-be censors, at least for the time being, with a compromise that leaves technical day-to-day running of the internet to ICANN while creating an Internet Governance Forum composed of governments, business representatives and members of “civil society”. There is no harm in a talking-shop dealing with questions such as cyber-security and spam, provided it has no regulatory powers; but the demand for such powers is likely to be the next step. Freedom dodged a bullet in Tunis, but governments will continue to take aim.