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Will the UN take over the internet?

Google is scaremongering. But the UN’s ITU isn’t exactly being comforting either.

The headlines are scary. “European Parliament warns against UN internet control”, the BBC had; “[US] House approves resolution to keep internet control out of UN hands” in the Huffington Post. Mainstream coverage has been regrettably scarce though, with almost all commentary in tech papers like CNET, PCWorld and ZDNet.

In a nutshell, then: the US, Canada and the EU are worried that this month’s meeting of the UN’s telecommunications arm could lead to a UN takeover of the internet. Google has launched a campaign, “Take Action”, to urge netizens to “join together to keep the internet free and open”. More specifically, they’re worried about proposals from “some governments”—read China, Russia—who don’t value freedom of expression as much as the West does.

The meeting is the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), convened by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to negotiate new International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). The ITU has its roots in telegraph and mobile networks, and they publish a lot of standards in that area, including several I work with in my day job.

But the internet is facilitated by several multi-stakeholder organisations incorporated in the US. This means governments are on an equal footing with organisations and engineers (sometimes with special provision for government input, sometimes without). Noting unease in some governments at this model, some worry that this could change.

Google vs ITU
Google is especially anxious. Vint Cerf, its chief internet evanglist, often called one of the “fathers of the internet”, wrote this op-ed piece for CNN echoing his company’s campaign’s urge to “fight for freedom”. A hair-raising battle call, but not really necessary. Legal experts, such as Harvard’s Professor Jack Goldsmith, doubt that WCIT will see any move of the sort, owing to the constraints of international law.

The ITU, for its part, has been at pains to explain that this isn’t what the WCIT is about. But its cries are unconvincing, because its bureaucrats aren’t the ones who make the decisions. The fact is that Russia’s and others’ proposal’s have pointed at their vision of a more controlled internet, and that those proposals have been debated. Already, the WCIT has approved a Chinese-proposed “deep packet inspection” standard that some say could be an “actual threat to user privacy”.

Google is, too, unfair to criticise the WCIT for being a “closed-doors meeting”. But while ITU can call itself (mostly) “transparent” and having corporate members, Google was correct to say that only countries can vote.

Poor bureaucrats
This puts the ITU’s bureaucrats somewhere between a rock and a hard place. I watched a discussion that the Guardian held on internet governance in October; its ITU representative there was just as unconvincing. It’s not the ITU, per se, that we should be worried about. It’s proposals by other member states that could be adopted by the ITU.

ITU bureaucrats repeatedly point out that the WCIT can’t override ITU’s constitution and other international law guaranteeing freedom of speech. But they can’t tell member states to withdraw their proposals. If they pass, they would in theory be rendered null, but it’s not clear how that would be effected. The most likely scenario is that not much happens: the ITRs (explicitly) don’t trump national sovereignty. So as far as freedom of speech goes, nations will continue as they are.

Of course, attempts to bring more governmental control to the internet should always be met with concern. There’s just less to fret about with this WCIT than some would have you think.

(Photo credit: ITU)

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