The fight to regulate the Internet is an inevitable one. For some governments, it’s an opportunity to wrest control of the information flow back from the swarming masses. For big businesses, it’s a chance to make (more) money thanks to guidelines and contracts that would benefit their bottom lines. And for the United Nations, one way or another, it’s an easy way to win unprecedented relevance by controlling the medium to end all media. It’s no surprise, then, that these three groups are joining hands and making a massive push this year to pump a little known U.N. agency full of power to control the Internet. It’s also no surprise that lots of people hate this idea.
As it exists today, the Internet is an impressively massive, decentralized entity. Basic issues like the assignment of domain names and maintenance of technical standards fall into the hands of small, nonprofit U.S. agencies like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), respectively. Otherwise, the power is in the hands of the users who upload their own content to servers around the world and come up with new ways for those servers to talk to each other. This is more or less how the Internet’s worked since the start.
Now, the U.N. wants to try a different tack. With the support of the major telecom companies and the world’s more despotic regimes, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a specialized agency within the U.N., is pushing forward a number of adjustments to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), an international treaty on communications, that would renegotiate who controls the Internet and how. These would be the first revisions to the treaty since it was ratified in 1988 when, needless to say, the Internet wasn’t as big a deal as it is today. Having been developed in secret earlier this year, the ITU’s new regulations will be finalized at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai this December.
Without even looking at the specific proposals, you can imagine how they’ve ruffled the feathers of free Internet advocates. The ITU doesn’t have the best reputation. In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Katitza Rodriguez says that “the ITU epitomizes many of the worst traits of Internet policymaking — it is an exclusive, government-directed process that is hostile to the distributed decision-making model that has fostered the Internet’s growth.” The main thrust of the amendments to the ITR involves yanking control of domain names and IP addresses from the non-profits that currently manage them and handing it up to the U.N.
It gets worse. One thing worth remembering is that the U.N. is not necessarily a sovereign body but rather a shell for its 193 member states, several of whom aren’t exactly known as champions of freedom. These are the same countries that are consistently irked by the Internet’s native openness. These new regulations, however, not only affects who maintains top level control of the Internet but would also impose specific, mandatory regulations on the content that lives there. As Larry Downes explains in Forbes, “These proposals, supported by Russia, China, and several Arab nations, would require extensive network engineering changes that would give national governments an easy way to act as gatekeeper to Internet traffic coming in or out of their citizen’s computers.” So if one day, Iran wants to turn off the Internet in the face of a popular uprising one day, there will actually be international regulations protecting their right to do so.
The other really despicable piece of the ITU’s plan appeals more to telecommunications companies. Submitted by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association, this proposal would impose a tax that internet service providers and content providers like YouTube and Facebook would have to pay in order to supply their users with data from overseas. This is more or less how long distance phone calls used to work, when countries could tax incoming calls, and an apparent move to get that revenue back. ETNO said as much when it described the measure as a response to “the challenges of the new Internet economy and the principles that fair compensation is received for carried traffic."
The U.S. doesn’t like this plan and said as much last week, when the House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the Obama administration not to let the ITU take over the Internet. Inevitably, it’s a bit of a difficult situation. As we mentioned before, not all of the U.N. member states who will attend the WCIT later this year have the same laissez faire attitude towards Internet regulation that we have. Furthermore, the proposals themselves have largely been kept secret. We know what we know now thanks to the whistleblower site WCIT Leaks. So besides the content blocking and the taxing, how do we know what we’re fighting against?
Internet freedom advocates’ biggest hope is that the same crew who practically started a war over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) will pony up and fight these regulations. Or at the very least, we might be able to win a bit more transparency from the ITU, so that we can understand what exactly is being proposed. Then again, maybe we could always just ignore whatever the U.N. decides to do. If there’s one thing the U.S. loves more than an open Internet it’s the opportunity to ignore the U.N.
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