from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

UN Control of the Internet? An Idea Whose Time Will Never Come

December 04, 2012

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The Persian Gulf is receiving plenty of press this week, as climate negotiators debate in Doha and political turmoil buffets Bahrain. But another important drama is unfolding in Dubai, where more than one hundred and fifty nations are meeting for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (Wcit) from December 4-13. Topping the agenda is the future governance of the internet. A bloc of developing countries and authoritarian states is pushing for a sweeping new treaty that would wrest authority for regulating the internet from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and hand it to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).  Fortunately, the United States, European Union, and private sector have mobilized to block this nightmare scenario, which would threaten the free and open character of the internet.

Historically, the ITU is among the most venerable of international organizations. A direct descendent of the International Telegraph Union (1865), the ITU’s mandate evolved over the past century and a half as new communications technologies emerged. Today, it serves as the UN’s leading standard-setting agency for telecommunications issues—including the allocation of orbital slots for satellites, the division of the global radio spectrum, and the harmonization of national mobile phone networks. The yawning gap in its portfolio, however, remains the internet, which was just getting started in 1988, the last time the ITU endorsed a major overhaul of global telecommunications regulations.

To the degree that the internet is “governed,” the main institution remains ICANN, an independent, not-for-profit corporation based in Los Angeles. Licensed and loosely supervised by the U.S. Department of Commerce, ICANN and the International Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) have responsibility for managing protocol identifiers and domain names, including the operation of root name servers that permit communication among internet hosts.

The outsized role of ICANN—and widespread perception of effective U.S. (and broader Western) control over the Internet—has long been a sore point for many UN member states, particularly from the developing world. They would dearly love to wrest authority for regulating the internet from ICANN and place it into the hands of the United Nations. “The brutal truth is that the internet remains largely [the] rich world’s privilege,” says Dr. Hamadoun Toure, the ITU’s current secretary-general. “ITU wants to change that.”

Wcitleaks, a site maintained by George Mason University researchers, highlighted the degree to which some governments would like to change the status quo. A Russian proposal, submitted on November 17, calls for ITU member states to enjoy “equal rights to manage the internet, including in regard to the allotment, assignment, and reclamation of internet numbering, naming addressing and identification of resources and to support for [sic] the operation and development of basic internet infrastructure.”  Reportedly, this proposal enjoys support both China and India.

The Russian proposal is just one of an estimated 450 amendments that member states proposed for a new ITU treaty.  Another problematic provision, supported by many developing countries (as well as some telecommunications providers) might require popular web services like YouTube, Facebook or Skype to pay tolls for the bandwidth they use.

ITU officials argue that a new treaty is badly needed to ensure “the free flow of information around the world, promoting affordable and equitable access for all and laying the foundation for ongoing innovation and market growth.” However, it is clear that some of the world’s authoritarian states—including China, Cuba, Iran and Russia—have more nefarious aims. They are less preoccupied with multilateralizing control of the internet than placing it firmly in the hands of sovereign governments. The prospect “that the ITU should enter the internet governance business” has alarmed  both the United States and the private sector. Last week Terry Kramer, U.S. ambassador to Wcit, blasted “invasive” ITU proposals that allow governments to manage “the content of what goes via the internet, what people are looking at, what they’re saying… These fundamentally violate everything that we believe in terms of democracy and opportunities for individuals.”

Google, too, has been at the forefront of the debate. Writing on the company’s official blog on December 2, godfather of the internet Vint Cerf explained that some world leaders want to “justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off internet access in their countries.” If they succeed, they will replace the current open, borderless internet—a  system of non-proprietary, interlocking communications networks that advances human freedom and protects anonymity—into a regulated, fragmented regime in which state authorities can restrict access and monitor online activity. Already, more than forty nations filter and censor internet content, and their numbers are growing. In response, Google sponsored an online petition  demanding a “free and open web” that has attracted support from over one thousand nongovernmental organizations and 1.8 million netizens from 160-odd countries. (Full disclosure: I collaborated with Google Ideas in 2012 on an initiative on illicit networks).

The European Union has adopted a similar stance. Last month the European Parliament declared that the ITU was “not the appropriate body” to be given authority over the internet, passing a resolution urging member states to reject changes to current International Telecommunications Regulations that would “negatively impact the internet, its architecture, operations, content and security, business relations, internet governance, and the free flow of information online.” As Neelie Kroes, vice-president of European Commission for the Digital Agenda, tweeted on November 29, the internet works just fine without an ITU treaty: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Dr. Toure, however, has sought to downplay fears about an ITU takeover of the internet. He assures worriers that although ITU decisions can in principle be taken by majority vote, in practice any major governance changes have always occurred by consensus. “We never vote because voting means winners and losers and you can’t afford that,” Toure told the BBC this summer. “Whatever one single country does not accept will not pass.” Consequently, the United States and the EU should enjoy a veto over this month’s deliberations in Dubai with little danger that the international community will adopt a new treaty shifting control of the internet from ICANN to the intergovernmental ITU. The greater risk is that in the aftermath of a deadlocked conference, a large group of UN member states will go their own way—creating their own closed system (or systems), and in the process fragment the internet.

One of the beauties of the internet has been its reliance on a multi-stakeholder governance structure­­—one in which governments, the private sector, and independent organizations all have a role to play. Such an approach, which would be impossible to replicate through a top-down treaty arrangement, has been integral to the open, dynamic character of the internet. A messy governance system may be a “nightmare for the tidy-minded, and especially for authoritarian governments,” as the Economist notes, but it remains critical for the future of global innovation and human freedom.