US gov’t, Web titans go to battle against UN Internet power grab: Everything you need to know

United Nations

The global fight for the open Internet has heated up this week with lawmakers, top Obama administration officials, and Internet industry giants moving in unprecedented unanimity to push back against a proposal to effectively hand over control of the Internet to the United Nations and thus its member states.

Unlike domestic political battles concerning the Internet, like the fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or the controversy over cybersecurity legislation currently before Congress, this struggle pits the United States against countries like China and Russia, who wish to seize control of Internet regulation from the variety of US-backed nonprofit organizations that currently oversee its structure, rules, and upkeep, and place that power in the hands of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency.

What is the proposal?

Unfortunately, at the moment, there are more questions than answers. But here’s what we know so far. In December, 193 UN member states will meet in Dubai for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). There, revisions to a 1988 ITU treaty may be proposed — no one’s saying for certain just yet — that would allow the ITU to take over as the sole regulatory body for the Internet. That means it would have far greater control over cybersecurity, data privacy, Web technology standards, and the Web address system. It would also give member states the ability charge Internet companies for international traffic. (More on this later.)

Presently, these responsibilities, known collectively as “Internet governance,” lay with a number of nonprofit institutions, like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which handles the underlying infrastructure of the Internet, and establishes top-level domains (TLDs), like .com, .net, or .ca;  and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which develops Internet standards.

Who wants the ITU in charge?

The full list of countries in support of such proposals has not been announced (after all, much could change between now and December). But those who are publicly in favor include China, Russia, Brazil, India, most countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, and “many other” countries in the developing world, according to reports. Other countries that have expressed dissatisfaction with the current system include Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Ghana, Bolivia, and Venezula, which means they are likely on the list of supporters as well.

Why do they support such proposals?

Because the organizations currently in control of the Internet often operate on behalf of the US government and its allies, which an increasing number of countries believe is unjust, since the Internet is an international network. And since the ITU already regulates many aspects of international communication (like setting the rates for long-distance calls and establishing what are and are not true “4G” wireless speeds) and is a truly international body, those in favor of such a power shift believe the ITU is the perfect organization to take over.

Basically, other countries want more power over the Web. And the ITU would give them that power.

Who’s against these proposals?

The US government and US-based businesses are by far the most vocal opponents. This includes Members of Congress, the Obama administration, and a wide swath of the technology industry’s largest and most powerful companies, including Google, AT&T, Microsoft, Verizon, Cisco, and others.

Why are they against it?

The opposition’s concerns boil down to a few key points: freedom of speech, the stifling of innovation, and money.

Giving the ITU control over the Internet means giving more control to governments, like China, Iran, Russian, which are notorious for greatly limiting the types of information available to their citizens online, and imposing censorship — especially of political speech — on their people.

“Does anyone here today believe that these countries’ proposals would encourage the continued proliferation of an open and freedom-enhancing internet?,” said FCC Chairman Robert McDowell during a House Energy and Communications Committee hearing on Thursday that addressed the possible ITU proposal.

“The threats are real and not imagined, although they admittedly sound like works of fiction sometimes,” McDowell added.

US Ambassador Phil Verveer, who serves as a deputy assistant secretary for the Obama State Department and will be directly involved in the WCIT negotiations, added further weight to this sentiment, saying that, if the proposals to give the ITU power over the Internet are adopted, it “could limit the Internet as an open and innovative platform by potentially allowing governments to monitor and restrict content or impose economic costs upon international data flows.”

On May 2, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (of which Ambassador Verveer is a part), summed up the concerns surrounding an ITU-controlled Internet in a blog post thusly: “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.”

Another concern is that the ITU’s negotiations are often held in secret, without input from the public at large. Vinton Cerf, considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Internet for his co-creation of TCP/IP and now a vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, also spoke at Thursday’s hearing as an expert witness, and recently warned of such consequences in a New York Times op-ed.

“The decisions taken in Dubai in December have the potential to put government handcuffs on the Net,” he wrote. “To prevent that — and keep the Internet open and free for the next generations — we need to prevent a fundamental shift in how the Internet is governed.”

During the House Committee hearing, Cerf added: “The open Internet has never been at higher risk than it is now. A new international battle is brewing — a battle that will determine the future of the Internet.”

In terms of money, critics warn that giving the ITU and its members power over Internet regulation could result in a variety of new taxes and other costs imposed on service providers, including companies like Google and Facebook, which could eventually result in higher costs for consumers. Furthermore, restriction on the free flow of information could also inhibit business on an international scale.

“The free flow of information, including the free flow of commercial information, is something that has added… measurably to the world’s wealth,” said Verveer. He added: “There have been some suggestions made by some countries that we ought to have a per-click charge, if you will; that content providers ought to contribute to the cost of translation companies for concluding traffic. There are a variety of reasons why that seems to us not to be a good idea at all. But you can see where what could turn out to be a marginal imposition on the Internet would in fact interfere with the commercial value of it. And we’re very anxious to avoid that.”

How do the opponents plan to fight back?

The plan is for the US government to build a coalition of allies that can fight back against the proposal. But that’s down the road. At the moment, however, a bipartisan coalition of House members, including Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA); Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA); Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA); Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI); and Rep. Greg Walden, (R-OR) have introduced a House resolution (pdf) that urges the Obama administration to remain vigilantly against possible proposals for an ITU takeover. Although, at this point, it seems a near impossibility that any interests in the US will back down from this fight.

It’s about to get interesting, folks. Stay tuned.

Update: Access has launched a new petition telling the ITU that “the Internet belongs to us,” not to the UN, nor the world’s governments.

Image via SVLuma/Shutterstock