Rebecca MacKinnon is a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a former CNN bureau chief in Tokyo and Beijing, co-founder of the citizen media network Global Voices, and author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.
On Aug. 2, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the White House to stop an obscure U.N. agency from asserting greater control over the Internet. It is the "consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States," the lawmakers affirmed, "to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today."
President Barack Obama's administration sometimes finds itself at odds with members of Congress who oppose nearly everything the United Nations does on principle. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently complained of "black helicopter" conspiracy theorists harming the national interest after they blocked U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty for the second time.
When it comes to the Internet, however, Congress, the White House, technology companies, and civil liberties groups are all on the same page: All agree that the United Nations — a body representing the interests of governments — should not be given control over a globally interconnected network that transcends the geography of nation-states. The Internet is too valuable to be managed by governments alone. Yet there is less agreement over how well the alternative "multistakeholder" model of Internet governance is working — or whether it is really serving all of us as well as it might.
The immediate threat to the Internet as we know it is the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) scheduled for December in Dubai by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a U.N. body whose remit has thus far been limited to global telephone systems. Members meet behind closed doors. Their policy proposals were until recently accessible only to members — until activists forced transparency upon them through a website called "WCITLeaks." The leaked documents reveal how a number of governments — in league with some old-school telecommunications companies seeking to regain revenues lost to the Internet — are proposing to rewrite global international telecommunications regulations in ways that opponents believe will corrode, if not destroy, the open and free nature of the Internet. (For readers wanting to delve into details, a number of nonprofit organizations including the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Internet Society have published analyses of the leaked documents and other recent ITU statements.)
A number of countries, including Russia and China, have put forward proposals to regulate aspects of the Internet like "crime" and "security" that are currently unregulated at the global level due to lack of international consensus over what those terms actually mean or over how to balance enforcement with the protection of citizens' rights. Other proposals focus on changes to who handles technical coordination and the setting of standards that enable all the devices, networks, and software across the Internet to communicate and connect with one another. Most of those technical coordination functions are currently handled by a constellation of institutions whose doors are open to all groups with a "stake" in the Internet's future: engineers, activists, unaffiliated individuals, and corporate and government representatives.
These institutions are not exactly household names. Only a tiny fraction of the billion-plus people on the planet who increasingly depend on the Internet have ever heard of the U.S.-based nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which coordinates the global domain-name system, the collection of regional Internet registries that coordinate IP addresses, or the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which develops global technical standards so that devices and software all around the world can interoperate with one another — let alone any of the other organizations that coordinate Internet-related resources and standards.
This governance ecosystem has worked astonishingly well in managing the Internet's exponential growth, largely because the system is so open and decentralized that any person anywhere on Earth with engineering or software-programming skills can invent new software applications, devices, and other networked technologies that can all interconnect with one another without needing to obtain permission or buy a license from anybody.
Some other ITU proposals would shift some of these organizations' roles to the ITU itself, which — because it primarily serves the interests of U.N. member states and excludes other stakeholders in its decision-making processes — will reflect a bias toward centralization, bureaucracy, predictability, and control. This would inevitably corrode if not destroy the Internet's openness and permission-free qualities that have made the Internet such a powerful platform for innovation and empowerment.
This is by no means, however, the first attempt by powerful governments to assert power through the ITU. China, Russia, and many developing countries have complained for nearly two decades that the new, nongovernmental multistakeholder institutions are dominated by Americans and Western Europeans who manipulate outcomes to serve their own commercial and geopolitical advantage. These critiques converge with the interests of former and current state-owned phone companies wanting to restore revenues of yore before email and Skype wiped out the need for most international phone calls. "There is still a continual theme that the glories of the past in terms of the telco monopolies of decades ago can somehow be reconstructed within the landscape of the Internet," writes Geoff Huston, chief scientist at the Asia Pacific Network Information Center. Doing so might also raise government revenues in some places, and thus a number of developing-country governments have lined up behind Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes in support of empowering the ITU.
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