The UN Meets on Net Regulation: Not a Cabal, But Not Harmless

Photograph by Erik Von Weber/Getty Images

The Web’s open-accesserati are up in arms about the United Nations International Telecommunications Union meeting taking place in Dubai this week, where some 2,000 delegates from more than 160 countries have assembled to review the 1988 International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). The ITRs, written when cell phones were Bible-thick and the Internet was a niche pastime, comprise a global treaty that lists interoperability standards. They allowed a tide of deregulation that gave rise to the massive expansion of the Internet; with 2.5 billion people online, the UN body is finally catching up and debating a new set of regulations that extend its authority.

This move to expand, or at least codify, international authority over the traditionally freewheeling Internet has drawn broad condemnation from government bodies including the European Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to Web heavyweights such as Google (GOOG) and the Mozilla Foundation. These organizations want to prevent the ITU from passing regulations that would make it easier for nations and private industry to exert control over the Web. Russia and China have not been shy about their desire to include censor-friendly language in the new treaty, and the agenda includes proposals on “allowing differentiated traffic management,” e.g., service providers privileging some Internet traffic over others.

Amid the uproar, it’s important to remember that the ITU has no direct regulatory authority over the Internet. As a body of the UN, it can’t enforce the new ITRs. It’s up to national governments to implement the treaty’s guidelines. And regarding language that explicitly approves filtering, it’s not as if governments need the UN’s imprimatur to restrict citizens’ access to the Internet. From the ITU’s perspective, the opprobrium directed at them should be aimed at its Net-hatin’ constituents, who’ll be the sharp end of any freedom-squelching regulations that come out of the meeting.

The ITU itself, however, will bear responsibility for allowing decidedly undemocratic principles in an international treaty. Ellery Biddle, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, stresses that the “real concern is legitimizing certain practices. If an article like Russia’s proposal to allow nations to cut Internet access for security reasons made it into the regulations, you end up with a UN body giving cover to any government that takes that step. … Governments will feel protected if they implement policies that restrict Internet access.”

For its part, the ITU hasn’t been exactly forthcoming. It did not release nations’ proposals in the months leading up to the conference, leaving disclosure site WCIT Leaks to fill the information void, and in response to criticism drolly stated that anyone is “free to lobby for their specific positions.” Sweet freedom, ITU-style: If you’re dissatisfied with nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups being shut out of the closed-door proceedings, take it up with your country’s delegation.

To be clear, ITU is not a shadowy cabal. It’s not convening to form a new global Internet regulatory body. But while it repeats that any new rules will come out of a transparent and inclusive process, it might abide the worst tendencies of repressive states. As Biddle concludes, “We are all better off if the Internet is as open and free as possible throughout the world.” We’ll have to wait for the meeting’s end to see if the ITU agrees.

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