When it comes to the UN exerting greater control over Internet governance, all of us who follow Internet policy in the U.S. seem to be on the same page: keep the Internet free of UN control. Many folks have remarked how rare this moment of agreement among all sides—right, left, and center—can be. And Congress seized that moment yesterday, unanimously approving a bi-partisan resolution calling on the Secretary of State to “to promote a global Internet free from government control[.]”
However, below the surface of this “Kumbaya moment,” astute observers will have noticed quite a bit of eye-rolling. Adam Thierer and I wrote a piece for The Atlantic pointing out the obvious fact that when a unanimous Congress votes “to promote a global Internet free from government control,” they are being hypocrites. That’s a pretty uncontroversial statement, as far as I can tell, but of course no one likes a skunk at the garden party.
Here’s our friend Steve DelBianco writing at CircleID:
Today a key committee in the US Congress approved a resolution opposing United Nations “control over the Internet.” While some in the Internet community have dismissed the bipartisan effort as mere political grandstanding, recent actions by some UN Member States show that lawmakers have good reason to be worried.
For the record, I fully support, commend, and endorse the Congressional resolution and the idea that the UN and all governments should keep their paws off the Internet. I certainly don’t dismiss the effort. That said, because I am capable of critical thought, I can simultaneously entertain the idea that politicians in Congress are also engaging in grandstanding and will likely forget their august resolution next time they vote on cybersecurity, copyright, privacy, net neutrality, or child safety bills.
So what is the recent action that DelBianco says should have lawmakers worried?
Last month, UN voting member Ethiopia made it a crime — punishable by 15 years in prison — to make calls over the Internet. The Ethiopian government cited national security concerns, but also made it clear that it wants to protect the revenues of the state-owned telecom monopoly.
And this gets to the next point of contention. Milton Mueller has been getting some heat because he is pointing out the also obvious fact that the UN is not about to take over the Internet, and that the issues around WCIT are much more subtle than the headlines would lead you to believe. The fact that Ethiopia is enforcing such a terrible law is evidence itself that state governments are the real threat to the Internet, and that they don’t need permission from the UN to regulate the Internet.
And even if they did need it, they have it. As ITU Secretary-General Houman Touré pointed out in his speech yesterday, “Such restrictions are permitted by article 34 of the ITU’s Constitution, which provides that Member States reserve the right to cut off, in accordance with their national law, any private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State, or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency.”
But all this does not mean that folks like Milton, Adam, Eli Dourado, and I are not in complete agreement with DelBianco, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, Gigi Sohn, and the rest who are sounding the alarm about WCIT. It’s just that we want to be more specific about what the exact threats are, and we don’t want to overstate the case because we fear that could eventually backfire.
The real threat is not that the UN will take over the Internet per se, but that autocratic states like Russia, China and Iran will use the process to further legitimize their existing programs of censorship, as well as the idea of interconnection charges.
In a happy accident of history, the Internet was designed by academics and engineers, not governments and telcos. Now they want to say, “Thanks for setting it up, we’ll take it from here.” They can’t take control overnight at a single conference—and maybe never given the Internet’s decentralized architecture—but they can start setting the stage for more and more government regulation, perhaps even resulting splinternets (an issue beyond the scope of this post). That’s the subtle threat WCIT and subsequent conferences pose.
The question then is, why update the ITRs at all? All evidence suggests that the only reason to revisit the ITRs is to bring the Internet under their umbrella. The main thing to be negotiated at WCIT, it seems, is how much regulation of the Internet the ITRs will legitimize, not whether to do so at all. I know it will be hard for our diplomats to acknowledge other states’ concerns about security, piracy, fairness, etc., and at the same time be firm that WCIT is not the place to deal with those issues, but that’s what they should do.