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The United Nations is about to discuss whether it should have the power to regulate the Internet.
Next month, the 12th World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT-12, will be held in Dubai. At the meeting, the 193 member countries of the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union, or ITU, will consider renegotiating a fairly obscure treaty known as the International Telecommunication Regulations, or ITRs.
The 24-year-old agreement delineates much of the ITU’s rule-making authority over telecommunications.
The hope of several countries is that they can expand the ITU’s jurisdiction to the Internet, replacing the current governing system with one that is controlled by a U.N. bureaucracy.
The member nations will also consider an “Internet tax” designed to collect money from more affluent nations and redistribute it to poorer nations to improve their Internet infrastructure. ITRs do not currently include regulation of the Internet within their jurisdiction, since they have not been revised since the beginning of the Internet communications era.
In testimony given last May at a hearing of a U.S. House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee, Republicans and Democrats were united in their opposition to any move by Russia and China to transfer control of the Internet to the U.N.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said, “Nations from across the globe will meet at a United Nations forum in Dubai at the end of this year, and if we’re not vigilant, just might break the Internet by subjecting it to an international regulatory regime designed for old-fashioned telephone service.”
Walden said that as the U.S. delegation to the WCIT takes shape, he urges the Obama addministration “to continue the United States’ commitment to the Internet’s collaborative governance structure and to reject international efforts to bring the Internet under government control.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the ranking member of the subcommittee, echoed Walden’s comments.
“Beyond just imposing new regulation on how Internet traffic is handled, several nations are set on asserting intergovernmental control over the Internet,” she said. “Now, we have had some real battles here over the issue of ‘Net neutrality, and it seems to me that we are calling on the international community for hands off, international ‘Net neutrality, as it were, when it comes to the Internet.”
Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, was even more explicit in his concerns over the power grab for a technology that has become an integral part of 35 percent of the world’s population.
“A new international battle is brewing, a battle that will determine the future of the Internet,” Cerf said. “And if all of us from Capitol Hill to corporate headquarters to Internet cafés in far-off villages don’t 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 and can bring so much more.
“As you can see,” he continued, “the decisions made this December in the ITU could potentially put regulatory handcuffs on the ‘Net with a remote U.N. agency holding the keys.”
The International Telecommunication Union, previously the International Telegraph Union, is a U.N. agency that is responsible for information and communication technologies. The ITU was first formed in 1869 and has seen its mandate increase from regulating telegraph communication to helping assign the orbits used by space satellites.
It now seeks to increase its mandate by regulating and taxing the Internet.
This new direction would have far-reaching consequences for the future of communications. Cisco estimates that by 2016, roughly 45 percent of the world’s population will be Internet users; there will be more than 18.9 billion network connections; and the average speed of mobile devices will be four times faster than today.
Robert McDowell, an FCC commissioner, was succinct in his statement of the threat facing the U.S. today.
“For many years now, scores of countries led by China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, but many, many others have pushed for – as Vladimir Putin said almost a year ago – ‘international control’ of the Internet through the ITU,” he said.
“Six months separate us from the renegotiation of the 1988 treaty that led to insulating the Internet from economic and technical regulation,” he continued. “What proponents of Internet freedom do or don’t do between now and then will determine the fate of the ‘Net and affect global economic growth as well as determine whether political liberty can proliferate.”
Russia, China, Iran and the Arab countries have been maneuvering to impose these controls, not through direct proposals but “through the backdoor,” through small expansions of intergovernmental powers.
They have offered proposals that would have the U.N. exert outright control over the Internet while maintaining that they have no wish for the ITU to exert Internet governance. They then state that any regulation of the Internet would be of the “light-touch” variety.
The Arab States have submitted a new rule that would change the definition of telecommunications to include “processing” and “computer functions.” The change would essentially give the ITU control over the Internet with a simple redefinition of terms.
In another example, China proposed the creation of a system where Internet users are registered using their IP addresses. China was joined by Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to propose to the U.N. General Assembly that it create an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” to “mandate international norms and rules standardizing the behavior of countries concerning information and cyberspace.”
All of the moves are designed to reduce the unrestricted freedom and growth of the Internet. Such changes would make it easier for a totalitarian government to identify and silence political dissident.
While not officially part of the current WCIT negotiations, it provides a hint at the direction these countries would take.
All of this is being done under the cover of a very real looming crisis. Just as the world ran out of Internet Protocol Addresses in 2011, it may also be running out of phone numbers over which the ITU does have some jurisdiction.
Many of the world’s current phone numbers are used for voice over Internet protocol, or VOIP, services such as Skype or Google Voice. It is the explosion of VOIP usage that has caused the shortage of telephone numbers. The WCIT-12 will attempt to resolve this issue.
If that was the only issue on the table, the conference would be a non-event, but beyond the regulation of the Internet, there are other proposals to be deliberated as well.
Currently, the Internet is regulated by a “multi-stakeholder” model where different organizations share responsibility for the Internet’s governance. These groups include the Internet Engineering Task Force (which helps coordinate the design of Internet technical standards) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Named and Numbers, which manages Internet names.
Not all of the member nations are happy with the current arrangement. Many governments have argued that the present regulatory environment unfairly serves American business and ideological interests.
Several foreign government officials are lobbying for the creation of an international universal service fund of sorts where foreign, usually state-owned, telecom companies would use international mandates to charge certain web destinations on a per-click basis to fund the build-out of broadband infrastructure across the globe.
Estimates of revenue generated from that tax are in excess of $800 billion. Google, iTunes, Facebook and Netflix are mentioned most often as prime sources of funding.
To date, all of the discussions leading up to WCIT-12 have been held largely behind closed doors. While some proposals have been leaked through a Wikileaks-style site, WCITleaks.org, most of the process is still shrouded in secrecy. Having these clandestine negotiations continue out of public view makes the final outcome difficult to determine.
Many skeptics say that a U.N. takeover of the Internet is unlikely. Even in the event that Russia, China and others are able to push through the measures they propose and put the Internet under U.N. control and tax usage on a per-click basis, nations such as the United States and its allies would pull out of the organization and develop Internet standards outside of the World Organization.
The effect of this “Balkanization” of the Internet is difficult to predict. If the worst-case scenario would happen, the Internet would be split along regulatory lines, with China, Russia and other nations following the ITR rules and the technological requirements and the rest of the world attempting to maintain the status-quo through the existing protocols.
Actually, this Balkanization has already happened to a degree. China in particular, through the deployment of its “Great Firewall of China,” has already shown that a government that has the will and the technical capacity can create a national network that is independent of the wider global ‘Net.
If WCIT-12 were to go in the direction of an empowered U.N. bureaucracy, this segregation would only be accelerated.
Anyone concerned about the future the Internet should at least be paying attention.