Thunderer Column in The Times today
The internet needs a global leader. Let's base it in London by Derek Wyatt
Long before the Harvard academic Jo Nye published his seminal work on soft power in 2004, Britain had given birth to two of the greatest soft-power institutions in the world. In 1932 came the BBC Empire Service, now the BBC World Service, and two years later came the British Council. Soft power is all we have left in the Foreign Office.
We have largely been a prisoner of US foreign policy since Suez and apart from Harold Wilson’s “no” to Vietnam we have slavishly followed America’s lead, as last week’s abstention on partial recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN so clearly demonstrated.
But soft power is real power, as we have heard from countless countries where imprisoned leaders have depended on the World Service for accurate news about their country and their potential fate — Gorbachev during Yeltsin’s attempted coup, Aung San Sui Kyi in Burma.
A conference is taking place in Dubai today on the future of the most powerful modern form of soft power, the internet. We can be proud of our contribution to this development too. Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s pioneering work in creating a world wide web developed into what may be the most profound invention we have yet seen.
The conference is organised by the International Telecommunications Union, based in Geneva, a UN agency that provides the regulatory backbone for the world’s telephone lines, however delivered. It will be lobbied by phone companies keen to impose delivery charges for transmission over the net and from countries such as China and Syria, keen to create separate internet systems surrounded by impenetrable walls. Power over the latter currently rests with an organisation based in Los Angeles called Icann, which controls domain names and is answerable to the US State Department.
Britain does not appear to have an agenda for Dubai, nor is it clear who, if anyone, is representing us there . It ought to be Ed Vaizey, the Arts Minister. And his agenda should be to propose that Britain establishes a new global internet commission, based in London and providing one centre for all these issues.
Such an institution could act both as a centre for best internet practice, whether for rural broadband, cyber terrorism or filtering child pornography and as an international court of arbitration. If it is too late for Dubai, let us table it for the next two G20 meetings in Russia and Australia in 2013 and 2014.
The internet is the biggest soft-power instrument in the world. We should provide its leadership.
Derek Wyatt founded the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group and the Oxford Internet Institute