A while back, UNESCO took a swing, hosting a number of Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meetings, culminating in a series of World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) meetings. The primary impact of most of these was to raise the question of whether the US should be allowed to unilaterally "run" the Internet. These arguments contributed to the formation of an independent oversight authority (ICANN), who has used the need for a new addressing system (the original one was running out of viable addresses as net usage exploded) to establish new rules and options for domain name and IP addresses to create new operational nexuses outside of the U.S., and thus outside of U.S. control. And the U.S. didn't help it's case when, after years of pledging that yes, while technically the U.S. could legally exert control - it never would - it suddenly started interfering in a very big and public way. Under the premise of Intellectual Property Rights enforcement, it started seizing the websites of alleged violators, (as well as the site's content, if hosted on a US server), most of whom were non-US operations, simply because the DNS system was located in the U.S.
see earlier post)- giving support for shifting Internet governance elsewhere.
Now, a more serious attempt to wrest control of the Internet is surfacing at another UN-related agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU has a World Conference coming up in December, and sources indicate that there forces seeking to use existing telecommunication regulations to place control of the Internet within the ITU. A leaked copy of the planning document used by governments to prepare for the meeting "show that many ITU member states want to use international agreements to regulate the Internet by crowding out bottom-up institutions, imposing charges for international communication, and controlling the content that consumers can access online," according to one scholar whose website is hosting a copy of the document.
The broadest proposal in the draft materials is an initiative by China to give countries authority over "the information and communication infrastructure within their state" and require that online companies "operating in their territory" use the Internet "in a rational way"—in short, to legitimize full government control. The Internet Society, which represents the engineers around the world who keep the Internet functioning, says this proposal "would require member states to take on a very active and inappropriate role in patrolling" the Internet.Perhaps also unsurprising, but disappointing, is the weak responses and reactions to these restrictive proposals by the Obama administration, given its own authoritarian approach to violating the underlying tenets of an open Internet when it conflicts with its own interests. Congress, at least, seems to be taking the issue seriously, with full bipartisan agreement that a government (or ITU) top-down approach would be a threat to the developing Internet Economy and a mechanism for regimes to restrict content they disliked. At one of the hearings addressing the issue, Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer and spokesman for Google, stated that ITU-focused governance of the Internet would be "potentially disastrous."
Several proposals would give the U.N. power to regulate online content for the first time, under the guise of protecting against computer malware or spam. Russia and some Arab countries want to be able to inspect private communications such as email. Russia and Iran propose new rules to measure Internet traffic along national borders and bill the originator of the traffic, as with international phone calls. That would result in new fees to local governments and less access to traffic from U.S. "originating" companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple. A similar idea has the support of European telecommunications companies, even though the Internet's global packet switching makes national tolls an anachronistic idea.
The NYTimes argument might have been better, if they'd bothered to check with any of the myriad public interest groups concerned about the openness and freedom of speech the Internet provides. Those folks, and those who know the technology, are pretty concerned about some of the specific proposals (including the ones "merely about money") and the potential disruption of internet operations and services, as well as being concerned with the significant threat of censorship of "inappropriate" information from both internal and external sources. Better yet, they could consider what might happen if a regime unfriendly to the NY Times took issue with some of their online content, and used the pretext of "simple internet regulation" to seize their site, servers, and all of the information they contained.
On the positive side, international bodies like the IGF, WSIS, and ITU tend to work slowly, seeking consensus, so perhaps the threat isn't imminent. Still, there are some very big players behind many of the proposals, and those countries are actively seeking sufficient support to achieve their goals. While perhaps not immanent, that doesn't mean the threat of achieving their goal of greater regulatory oversight over content and communications isn't real - or that there aren't serious potential consequences. I'd be less worried if this administration took a more forceful approach in opposition to at least the more consequential proposals, and wasn't actively trying to frame the issue of international regulation of the internet as being merely about "money" or combating internet fraud or piracy. It'd be nice if they also used words like "openness", "free speech", or privacy. After all, that's what the U.S. is supposed to stand for.
Sources - Crovitz: The U.N.'s Internet Power Grab, Wall Street Journal
Congress United Against ITU-Centric Net Governance, Multichannel News
Planning document at WCITLeaks.orghttp://wcitleaks.org/ site (other drafts and responses are also available)
Attempted debunking by the NY Times
Megaupload Files Remain in Limbo, Online Media Daily