Is the UN the Next Big Threat to Internet Freedom?

Photograph by Mark Garten/UN via Bloomberg

Even as Internet-control bills such as SOPA and PIPA were making their way through the Senate and House of Representatives earlier this year (only to be short-circuited by public opinion), another potential firestorm was brewing just beneath the surface—one that is expected to erupt in a matter of months in Dubai. That’s because the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations, wants very much to take over management of the Internet, a plan that will be debated by member nations in Dubai. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of U.S. congressional officials said they will resist this attempt with everything they have. But will it be enough?

A resolution released on Thursday by the members of the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee called on the government (pdf) to implement a position on Internet governance that “clearly articulates the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet today.” One member of the bipartisan committee, Representative Fred Upton (R-Mich.), said in a statement before the hearing that:

“The Internet has become this economic and social juggernaut not because governmental actors willed it to be so, but because the government took a step back and let the private sector drive its evolution. International regulatory intrusion into the Internet would have disastrous results not just for the United States, but for people around the world.”

More than one observer, however, has noted the irony of Congress becoming so concerned about control of the Internet when that’s exactly what certain members of the House and Senate were trying to implement by promoting SOPA and PIPA—bills that would have imposed a wide range of responsibilities on Internet service providers and others in the name of copyright protection and were widely criticized for infringing on freedom of speech and the open Internet.

The rationale for the ITU’s move seems to be that because the Internet is a global entity, it should be managed according to global standards. At the moment, control over the fundamental levers and gears that underlie the Internet—including the domain-name system—lies with ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers), which is a private, U.S.-based nonprofit organization. The secretary-general of the ITU, Hamadoun Touré, told Vanity Fair that “[w]hen an invention becomes used by billions across the world, it no longer remains the sole property of one nation, however powerful that nation might be.”

Although ICANN says it operates on a multistakeholder model that involves such groups as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium, there has been a lot of criticism of the organization over the years, from allegations of conflicts of interest to moves such as the recent expansion of the top-level domain system—an expansion that could lead to hundreds of new domains, such as .lol and .youtube. Some believe this was an unnecessary landgrab by domain registrars and could actually make the Internet more confusing rather than less.

Whatever the flaws of the current system, however, critics of the ITU’s plans—including one of the “fathers of the Internet,” TCP/IP developer Vinton Cerf, who testified before the congressional subcommittee on Thursday—say putting control of the Net under the UN body would subject the Internet to the whims of many nations whose commitment to democracy and free speech is questionable at best, including China and Russia. Cerf, who is currently the chief Internet evangelist at Google, said the move would threaten the free and open nature of the Internet:

“Such a move holds profound—and I believe potentially hazardous—implications for the future of the Internet and all of its users. If all of us do not pay attention to what is going on, users worldwide will be at risk of losing the open and free Internet that has brought so much to so many.”

Not only could the group be forced to consider a host of issues such as blocking access to specific websites or services based on regional laws—such as Germany’s ban on Nazi references or Turkey’s ban against criticism of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—but critics have warned that the ITU could also start meddling with the system of payments that international telecommunications companies have put in place for handing off-Web traffic as it moves around the globe. They are afraid ITU members will try to siphon off some of those payments to fill the pockets of their ailing state-owned phone and Internet companies.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell also warned that some of the countries that belong to the ITU—each of which gets a single vote— re interested in restraining the essential freedom of the Internet because it causes problems for dictatorships and autocracies:

“[L]et’s face it, strong-arm regimes are threatened by popular outcries for political freedom that are empowered by unfettered Internet connectivity. They have formed impressive coalitions, and their efforts have progressed significantly.”

In addition to the resolution passed by the congressional subcommittee and statements against the ITU move by groups such as the Internet Society and the Center for Democracy & Technology, several petitions are circulating on the Internet aimed at raising awareness about the UN’s plan. One urges the ITU to “release your preparatory documents; recognize the role of the user, and reject any proposals that might centralize control of the Internet.”

Activism by concerned citizens helped derail SOPA and PIPA, but these were bills being promoted through the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, not the United Nations. And at the UN and within the ITU are some very powerful states whose interests lie in controlling the Internet in a much more fundamental way than either SOPA or PIPA did. Whether criticism from the U.S. or anywhere else is enough to stop that effort is an open question, one that will be answered once and for all in December in Dubai.

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