The Case Against Letting the U.N. Govern the Internet

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All this year, and culminating in December at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, the nations of the world will be negotiating a treaty to govern international telecommunications services between countries. It is widely believed that some countries, including Russia and China, will take the opportunity to push for U.N. control of Internet governance. Such a turn of events would certainly be troubling.

That’s because the institutions that govern the Internet, and which keep it free and open, are for the most part decentralized, bottom-up, multistakeholder affairs. They are also largely based in the U.S. These include organizations like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in California, as well as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Society, which are volunteer groups manned largely by Americans.

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This arrangement grew out of the fact that the Internet was developed in the U.S., with control of its governance eventually handed over to nonprofits by the government during the Clinton Administration.

As the Internet has grown and spread across the globe, however, emerging powers such as Brazil, Russia, India and China have begun to frequently and forcefully question why the U.S. should have outsize influence over how the Internet is run. They suggest, instead, that Internet governance should be handled by the U.N. Last year, for example, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with the head of the International Telecommunication Union — the U.N. body now hosting treaty negotiations — and made no bones about how Russia saw things.

“One [important issue] is establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union,” Putin said. “If we are going to talk about the democratization of international relations, I think a critical sphere is information exchange and global control over such exchange. This is certainly a priority on the international agenda.”

Along with China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Russia later introduced a U.N. General Assembly resolution proposing a “code of conduct” for global information security.

The proposal sought to establish that “policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of States” and not the ICANN, the IETF or the other multistakeholder groups that now run the Internet. At the same time, Brazil, India and South Africa called for creation of “new global body” to control the Internet.

It’s amazing to think about it, but no state governs the Internet today. Decisions about its architecture are made by consensus among engineers and other volunteers. And that, in fact, is what has kept it open and free.

“Upending the fundamentals of the multistakeholder model is likely to balkanize the Internet at best, and suffocate it at worst,” FCC commissioner Robert McDowell said recently in a speech. “A top-down, centralized, international regulatory overlay is antithetical to the architecture of the Net, which is a global network of networks without borders. No government, let alone an intergovernmental body, can make decisions in lightning-fast Internet time.”

While there are some signs that the proregulatory countries may be backing off, the Internet community should remain vigilant. We may be headed for a showdown this December in Dubai that could make recent antipiracy legislation, pending cybersecurity bills in Congress and the E.U.’s new data rules look like a picnic.

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