What the hell is wrong with the US press?

What the hell is wrong with the US press?

The mainstream press all over the world fundamentally fails to understand what the situation is with regard to the Internet and with Internet technology in general, but the US press and its review of the situation is so nationalistic and blinkered as to be embarrassing.

Maybe this is just part of a wider malaise caused by Americans unknowingly reiterating the propaganda-style spiel coming from the current administration. The opaque and ill-defined War on Terror or the concept that there are millions of people out to destroy “our values”.

But journalists are journalists – or at least they should be. There should be no place for heavily angled and knowingly biased pieces relying on out-of-date stereotypes. But talk about the Internet and there it all is.

Now, admittedly, the discussions going on not a mile from where I'm writing this in Geneva have taken on a political bent – they always do when it comes to world decisions. The US wants the Internet to retain its roots as a lightly regulated system which it has the most control over.

Other countries in the world have seen the Internet appear in their societies and they naturally want a say in how it works. And let's be honest, whether you personally agree with their stance or not is beside the point, it's their country and they can do what they want.

What is going on in Geneva however is the creation of international agreement over the Internet, so far as it can go. It is only right then that this agreement reflect the considered opinion of those countries exercised enough to point their point across – irrespective of wider political views.

The US has, is and will continue to use its unique control point as the means by which it can bend the world's will to its viewpoint. But the nationalistic and pitiful reviews of this process in the US shame the honourable journalistic profession.

It's bad enough that there are fewer journalists covering this vital process that you can fit in a mini, but for a journalist to go to the trouble of writing a piece about it but failing to either turn up at the event and talk to people or to even review the most basic texts – nearly all of which are readily available online, is embarrassing.

I hold up as two exhibits, an article by US news channel CBS, and another by The Washington Times.

The first is titled “World Wide (Web) Takeover” the second “U.S. tells nations hands off Internet“.

Both are appallingly biased. The more reasonable of the two in the Washington Times starts off angled but accurate: “The United States said at the outset of global talks on information technology yesterday that it will fight attempts to put the United Nations or any international group in charge of the Internet.”

Not strictly true in that the US didn't start off by saying that. And of course by stating this, the story willfully ignores the many, many other points made by countries across the globe. It follows with a quote from US ambassador David Gross which supports the statement.

It then continues, accurately, “Major developing nations spearheaded by China, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a number of industrialised countries including Norway, Switzerland and Russia would like to see the United States relinquish its historic control of the Internet.” So far, so good.

“'This situation is very undemocratic, unfair and unreasonable,' said Sha Zukang, the ambassador from China, which this week imposed new rules that allow only 'healthy and civilized' news to be read by the mainland's 100 million Web users. China's government will determine which news is healthy and which news is not.”

That is a gross bias whichever way you look at. The current situation with ICANN and the US government holding an unspecified level of control over it *is* undemocratic, unfair and unreasonable – especially if you approach from the perspective of the Chinese government. The problems with the system are the very reason it is being discussed. Ambassador Gross has even admitted to me that parts of the system need changing.

But the link – not even given a separate sentence – between China and censorship is out of place. Why? Because the article has yet to even raise the issue of censorship in the context of the Internet. If the sentence read: “Ambassador David Gross, whose government is holding up development of the Internet in Iraq and Afghanistan through its illegal occupation” – everyone would, quite rightly, go mad.

The rest of the article is strictly accurate – but by presenting the case from only one perspective, it give a wholly unsatisfactory and inaccurate perspective of an important event.

The CBS piece is far worse. It begins:

“'In my opinion, freedom of speech seems to be a politically sensitive issue. A lot of policy matters are behind it.' So observed Houlin Zhao, the man who wants to control the greatest forum for free expression in history.”

This is a biased and moderately racist first sentence. Remove the name – or, better, replace it with “Jack Thomas” – and see how the meaning is changed. It continues in the same vein:

“Zhao, a director of the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and a former senior Chinese-government official, is a leader in the United Nations's effort to supplant the United States government in the supervision of the Internet.”

Why does it matter than he's Chinese? Also, most of ITU's top staff are ex-government officials, and only a few of them come from China. The staff is made up of a huge range of different nationalities. “Supplant” is a loaded term given no justification with subsequent fact.

It would also be fair to note that despite the pesky Chinese always being behind anything to disrupt the Americans, they have pretty much stayed out of all the arguments that China is automatically and inaccurately linked to in these articles.

“The U.N.'s professed goals [why 'professed'?], which include expanding Internet access in developing countries and fighting spam, are laudable. However, the substance of its proposals – shifting Internet governance from the U.S. to a U.N. body – would produce an Internet in which regulations smother free speech, strangle net-driven economic growth, and threaten America's online security.”

This is all bunkum. The “substance of the proposals” is in fact tackling spam and cybercrime, and expanding access and different languages across the Internet. Governance is just the most controversial aspect.

Plus there is no evidence whatsoever that a UN body would “smother free speech, strangle net-driven economic growth, and threaten America's online security”. This is blinkered, ignorant scaremongering. If you want free speech – check out the dozens of countries entitled to tell the most powerful countries in the world that they think their ideas stink. That is freedom of speech and it happens every day in the UN meetings.

Then comes the classic faux reasonableness: “Yet even those sympathetic to the idea of an internationally controlled Internet are skeptical…”, before quoting a US university professor. Why not a Japanese professor, or a Malayian professor, why not anyone apart from the country at the centre of discussions?

Then some more idiocy on top in the form of scary questions: “Will domain-registration fees, currently a few dollars per domain, skyrocket to subsidize websites for countries without electricity?”

No – but they are due to rocket thanks to VeriSign's (US company) monopolistic control of dotcom and dotnet.

“There are many ways that U.N. control could make the Internet slower and more expensive, and few improvements that the private sector cannot supply. For instance, with AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google working on the spam problem, it is doubtful that the U.N. will have much to add.” Again, unproven nonsense. The creation of unargued points, not backed up by any evidence and relying on blind faith is less than worthless – it is damaging.

And on and on it goes, adding a senator's quote while pointing out he has investigated possible UN corruption, but oddly not finding the time to mention all the investigations into US actions.

And on and on and on. Sloppy, one-sided, and pretending to be objective. I doubt if you find such unquestioning articles in any other countries other than the ones these articles pick as regular targets. The American government's role in the Internet does need looking at, reviewing and, if necessary, criticising. And the very people that should be doing the most of this are the journalists in that actual country.

What the hell is wrong with the US press?

  1. […] The result was that the World Summit on the Information Society became a one-issue process. In October at a pre-Summit meeting in Geneva, the issue of US control became a heated topic of debate. Particularly bizarre from my perspective as a journalist in the room were the US press reports about what was happening and what the issues were. None of the journalists that wrote the reports were actually present at the meeting, with the result that reports bore almost no relation to the reality of the situation. […]

  2. […] topic of debate. Particularly bizarre from my perspective as a journalist in the room were the US press reports about what was happening and what the issues were. None of the journalists that wrote the reports were actually present at […]

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