We Must Take UN’s Internet Grab Seriously

Thanks to our friends Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, and the anonymous individual who leaked a key planning document for the International Telecommunication Union’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) on Jerry and Eli’s inspired site, we now have a clearer view of what a handful of regimes hope to accomplish at WCIT, scheduled for December in Dubai, U.A.E.

Although there is some danger of oversimplification, essentially a number of member states in the ITU, an arm of the United Nations, are pushing for an international treaty that will give their governments a much more powerful role in the architecture of the Internet and economics of the cross-border interconnection. Dispensing with the fancy words, it represents a desperate, last ditch effort by several authoritarian nations to regain control of their national telecommunications infrastructure and operations

A little history may help. Until the 1990s, the U.S. was the only country where telephone companies were owned by private investors. Even then, from AT&T and GTE on down, they were government-sanctioned monopolies. Just about everywhere else, including western democracies such as the U.K, France and Germany, the phone company was a state-owned monopoly. Its president generally reported to the Minster of Telecommunications.

Since most phone companies were large state agencies, the ITU, as a UN organization, could wield a lot of clout in terms of telecom standards, policy and governance–and indeed that was the case for much of the last half of the 20th century. That changed, for nations as much as the ITU, with the advent of privatization and the introduction of wireless technology. In a policy change that directly connects to these very issues here, just about every country in the world embarked on full or partial telecom privatization and, moreover, allowed at least one private company to build wireless telecom infrastructure. As ITU membership was reserved for governments, not enterprises, the ITU’s political influence as a global standards and policy agency has since diminished greatly. Add to that concurrent emergence of the Internet, which changed the fundamental architecture and cost of public communications from a capital-intensive hierarchical mechanism to inexpensive peer-to-peer connections and the stage was set for today’s environment where every smartphone owner is a reporter and videographer. Telecommunications, once part of the commanding heights of government control, was decentralized down to street level.

There’s no going back. Even authoritarian regimes understand this. Fifty years ago, when a third-world dictatorship faced civil strife, it could control real-time information by shutting off its international telephone gateway switch. Not so today. So much commerce, banking, transportation and logistics depends on up-to-the-second cross-border data flow that no country, save for truly isolated regimes such as North Korea, can afford to cut themselves off the global Internet, even for one day.

That’s why it’s no surprise that the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia, supported by even more despotic states such as Iran, are spearheading the UN/ITU effort. Their politically repressive regimes can’t function with the Internet, but their economic regimes, tied as they are to world trade, can’t function without it. That’s why attempts at Internet control have to be more nuanced and cloaked in diplomacy.

As we see in the leaked documents, their agenda is masked as concerns about computer security and virus and malware detection, or in arguments about how nation-states have a historically justifiable regulatory responsibility for setting technical standards for IP-to-IP connections. But dig deeper and you find their proposed solutions would give them the power to read emails, record browser habits and extort fees from web sites and services such as Google, Facebook and Twitter (if they aren’t going to block them completely).

In the long run, it is doomed to fail. As an organism, the Internet defies top-down control. Every time a country attempts to impede certain types of Internet communications, via firewalls, filters, or outright domain name blocks, individuals create workarounds. It’s not that difficult.

That simple fact might engender complacency among netizens here in the U.S. And besides, speaking out against ominous plots by UN agencies makes us sound too much like the nutty neighbor with the backyard bunker.

But there are serious risks to what the ITU and the UN are attempting. Even if only gets part of what it wants, the ITU’s Internet grab stands to seriously damage the global free and open Internet.

First, as a multi-lateral “international” agreement, the ITU plan will give repressive regimes cover for Internet clampdowns. Even if the U.S. does not sign on, all it will take is buy-in a few other Western governments, who might just see the treaty as convenient (see the U.K.’s recent Home Office ideas), to allow the more egregious dictatorships in the world to take repressive action.

The U.S. should be leading all democratic governments in speaking out against the ITU plan. A weak-willed “I’m-OK-you’re-OK” approach, or worse, a non-judgmental relativism that suggests American ideas of Internet freedom should defer to a more repressive country’s “national culture,” are simply not acceptable.

It seeks to displace multi-stakeholder development. The collaborative culture of the Internet, driven by consensus and undergirded with a commitment to open standards and platforms, is the ITU’s primary target. When a nation-states make rules for phone networks, they can specify equipment, favor their domestic manufacturers, create cumbersome compliance rules, and ban possession of non-compliant devices all with the force of heavy-handed law. This is hardly far-fetched. Ethiopia has made Internet phone calls (i.e. Skype) illegal.

It seeks to normalize government regulation of the Internet. For more than 30 years, deregulation has been the predominant policy toward the Internet. This trend has managed to hold on despite numerous attempts at censorship, “neutrality” regulation and price controls. The most common proposition we hear runs to the effect of the Internet has become so important that it needs regulation. Frankly, the Internet has survived and thrived since its beginning without top-down state regulation. Worldwide access continues to grow. By and large, international data networks operate reliably and inexpensively. If anything, the burden of proof for regulation of the ‘Net should be ever higher. Why, exactly, do we need an international regulatory regime for the Internet? So far those who would impose one haven’t said so. And sorry to say, because citizens are taking to the streets with their iPhones and demanding basic freedoms is not an acceptable reason.