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Explained: The fuss over the UN internet takeover

There’s nothing wrong in principle with UN oversight. It’s who wants it that poses the threat to internet freedom.

Yesterday, 55 countries led by the US refused to sign a treaty that they say expands the remit of the UN’s telecommunications arm, the ITU, to include the internet. Despite the ITU’s repeated assurances that the 10-day summit is not about the internet, the topic dominated discussion. In the wee hours of Thursday morning, a resolution calling for the ITU to “play an active role” in the internet was passed amid procedural confusion. The next day, Iran forced a vote on two controversial clauses about security and spam. For the US and its allies, it was the last straw.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) hasn’t really made headlines, but the online reaction to the new treaty’s been furious. Given the zealous nature of internet fanatics, that’s not surprising. But developed nations have been extraordinarily united in standing against what they see as an attempt by governments to take control of the internet. Is it really such a bad idea?

Starting at first principles
At face value, the concept of government oversight of the internet isn’t outrageous. Governments routinely intervene in supporting critical infrastructure: roads, public transport, energy, post, to name a few. This extends to telecommunications too: radio spectrum is regulated for obvious reasons, and governments often take a keen interest in telephony, both fixed and mobile.  In fact, those areas are where the ITU has been active—and successful—in co-ordinating efforts to bridge telecommunications globally.

The claim from advocates of ITU internet oversight is that telecommunications and the internet are inseparable. This isn’t quite true, but they do go hand in hand. Telecommunications is the physical infrastructure and basic conventions that make data transfer possible. In engineering speak, we call this the “lower layers”, or more specifically the physical layer.

The internet (in hugely oversimplified terms) is the interconnected networks that facilitate getting information from an arbitrary A to an arbitrary B. This, too, involves conventions, but the standards here specify how to route data, as opposed to how to transmit it. Of course, the internet “sits on top of”, and hence relies on telecommunications. But the two are distinguishable. To draw an analogy, in a room full of people, “telecommunications” is the medium (audible speech) and language you use to talk; “the internet” is how you find the person you want to talk to.

That doesn’t automatically mean the ITU should stay out of the internet. The postal system and phone networks, for example, have extensive government oversight (in most countries, a legislated monopoly). So why the resistance?

The status quo
The current governance arrangements are basically historical accident. The internet was born out of an experiment among defence scientists in America in the 1960s. The experiment grew, and grew, and as Vint Cerf put it, “the experiment never ended.” It’s no coincidence, then, the many non-profit organisations overseeing the internet today, including ICANN and the Internet Society (among others), are headquartered and incorporated in the United States.

These organisations run in a “multi-stakeholder model”, largely driven by engineers from the private sector and academia. Governments are treated just like everyone else. The US and its allies, which include the EU countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, cite the lack of government steering as one of the internet’s greatest strengths, responsible for its unparalleled growth and rapid innovation.

The lack of government control is what makes Russia, China, the UAE and allies uneasy. This is especially true where values such as civil stability take precedence over freedom of expression. But also, they feel that the US has an unfair amount of influence. After all, ICANN, which is responsible for internet addressing, operates under a memorandum of understanding with the US Department of Commerce.

While the US should be praised for defending freedom, it has to be said that it’s acting in its own interests. Most major internet companies reside in the US, so financially, it captures most of the profits. (One of the WCIT proposals was to charge those companies for sending traffic internationally.)

The real problem
So the issue the US and allies take is not on principle, but on practicality. Firstly, they argue that the status quo has served the internet exceptionally well. Secondly, and more importantly, they note that the countries who want the ITU to have more of a hand in the internet are the same countries as those who continually shove freedom of expression aside.

The ITU has tried to insist that it doesn’t have internet governance ambitions. Unfortunately, its members see differently. A Russian-led coalition submitted (and withdrew under pressure) a proposal to give governments “equal rights to manage the internet”. Other proposals by Russia and its allies, including China, Iran and Algeria, run along a theme of internet control. Last year, Vladimir Putin told Hamadoun Touré, the ITU’s secretary-general, that he was keen on “establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capability of the ITU.”

The US and allies fear that conceding to any push to authorise the ITU to finger into the internet would allow these regimes to up-end the free and open nature of the internet. That’s debatable—states already have the sovereign right to control whatever they like within their borders (as these regimes normally do), just as the US and allies do to keep it free and open. But it would at least add to their rhetorical legitimacy. Also, the US is presumably wary of signing anything that could oblige or pressure them to co-operate with governments who want to change the private multi-stakeholder model.

The nature of the ITU
The ITU does some excellent work in facilitating international telecommunications capability. It’s helpful with co-ordinating radio spectrum between countries, and many of its standards form the basis of phone and mobile networks today. Also, the new treaty isn’t all bad: it contains laudable agreements on international roaming charges, access to fibre networks for developing countries and a unified international emergency number.

But the ITU, while “founded on the principle of co-operation between governments and the private sector”, remains (unsurprisingly) much more government-centric than the organisations currently managing the internet. For example, while private-sector members can participate, only states have rights to vote and nominate potential ITU officials. This makes many sceptical about its ability to be part of the multi-stakeholder model.

Whether the new treaty (called the International Telecommunications Regulations, or ITRs) actually does cover the internet is a point of contention. ITU officials insist that the plenary resolution on “fostering” the internet is “non-binding” on states, and that despite the articles on network security and spam, “content-related issues” are explicitly excluded. But that’s not what Russia and allies were hoping for, and 55 countries obviously weren’t convinced. The procedure by which Russia, Iran and allies got their texts “agreed” upon was admittedly dodgy, especially by UN standards. In the end, the US and allies weren’t willing to accept an agreement that they feel gives the ITU or its member states a mandate to look at the internet.

The implications of the new treaty, still signed by 89 countries, remain to be seen.  What is clear is that the battle for internet control won’t be going away any time soon.

(Photo credit: ITU)

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