Last week, I wrote about how the US government is gearing up for a showdown with other United Nations member states over the future of the Internet. Basically, a growing number of countries — most notably, Russia and China — want to give regulatory power of the Internet to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is a wing of the UN. This, in turn, would give ITU member states more power over the Internet. The Obama administration, Congress, and US-based businesses are all against this plan.
At the moment, Internet governance is the duty of a number of nonprofit organizations, like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), among others. While no government legally controls these organizations, they were more or less set up by the United States and its allies, and generally follow the lead of the US. Because the Internet is a global entity, some other countries think this is unjust and want to change the power balance. Thus, the ITU proposals.
The proposals to make this shift are expected to be presented at a meeting in December called the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT (pronounced “wicket”). Technically, there’s nothing secret about these proposals — or, at least, there’s not supposed to be. That said, the proposals and other documents related to WCIT are frustratingly out of sight, often closed behind firewalls on the ITU website.
And that’s where WCITLeaks.org comes in. Launched this week by Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, policy analysts for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, WCITLeaks is calling on those with access to the ITU proposal documents to anonymously share the information with the rest of us. Any related documents will be posted to the Website for all to see.
Three documents have been posted so far — and what they show isn’t good. Among the documents is a proposal by the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ENTO), a Brussels-based lobbying group that represents 35 companies around the world. As CNet reports, the ENTO proposal wants to amend the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty (pdf) to impose taxes on major Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Netflix, for the traffic they gather over Internet service provider’s Internet connections.
As you might imagine, charging such fees would create havoc in the Internet business ecosystem, and could have a wide variety of unintended consequences for users and businesses alike.
Problems with ITU power
In addition to allowing taxes and other fees to be imposed on Web content providers, proposed changes to the ITR treaty could also allow “governments to monitor and restrict content or impose economic costs upon international data flows,” which would be detrimental to free speech and the open Web alike.
In short, the proposals would presumably allow for far greater governmental control of the Web, and complicate the global nature of the Internet by allowing individual countries to have more say over what comes in, what goes out, and what types of technologies are used across borders.
In a blog post, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy sums up the problems with giving the ITU more power like this:
Governmental proposals to replace the Internet’s decentralized and open system must be resisted. Centralized control over the Internet through a top-down government approach would put political dealmakers, rather than innovators and experts, in charge of the future of the Internet. This would slow the pace of innovation, hamper global economic development, and lead to an era of unprecedented control over what people can say and do online. Centralized control would threaten the ability of the world’s citizens to freely connect and express themselves by placing decision-making power in the hands of global leaders who have demonstrated a clear lack of respect for the right of free speech.
As mentioned, WCIT will take place this December in Dubai. Representatives from all 193 member states of the ITU will be in attendance. And each country has one vote over the proposals to empower the ITU.
In the mean time, we’ll be watching WCITLeaks like a hawk to see what kind of changes these countries are proposing, and how that could affect the Web. Stay tuned.