Friday, December 7, 2012

Internet at risk of politicization

It's taken a while, but it looks like there's a good chance that the UN, acting through the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), will try to assert regulatory control over the Internet.
  Almost since the globalization of the Internet, a lot of countries and interest groups have complained about the U.S. de facto control of the Internet.  While there's never been any formal regulation of the Internet by the U.S., early internet standards were created in the U.S. and largely funded by Federal research dollars; the U.S. (through the NSF) built and funded the Internet backbone in the U.S. (until 1994, when the backbone was privatized), and many international backbone links were funded wholly or partially with U.S. funds. But the major concern for most of the non-U.S. world was that the U.S. hosted and funded the top level domain name server - the address book for the millions of computers that form the Internet.  The threat that many feared was that the U.S. could unilaterally disconnect (virtually) a country from the net.  (A physical connection might still exist, but removing DNS addresses could make it nearly impossible to find sites and content).
 Early concern and pressures led to the creation of an independent nonprofit organization, ICANN, to take over regulation of the DNS system from what had been an ad hoc group of volunteers.  However, the U.S. still was the primary funder and the contracts included clauses that many interpreted as giving the U.S., through the Department of Commerce (DoC), legal authority to control.  Throughout this period, the U.S. publicly promised that it would never interfere with DNS and ICAAN operations.  These promises were broached in 2006, when the new funding contract and a concurrent memoradum of understanding explicitly granted the U.S. DoC final and unilateral oversight over some ICANN operations.
  Around that time, ICANN undertook to create a revised addressing system and new top-level domain names, as the Internet was expanding so quickly that it was likely to run out of viable addresses within a decade.  In addition, ICANN began to internationalize DNS operations which may have prompted the DoC to release a public statement that it had no interest in giving any outside group, including ICANN, management and control over the authoritative root zone file (the "official" address book).  Around the same time, the UN started hosting meetings to address issues related to the operation and regulation of the Internet - mostly with a specific goal of replacing the U.S. as the dominant authority with an international regulatory authority within the U.N.
  The U.S. had managed to keep these efforts more or less on the back burner, until the U.S. started unilaterally seizing Internet addresses of sites and services (including many not in the U.S.) by removing the seized address from the DNS.  Previously, while the U.S. had always asserted authority over the top-level DNS, it had also promised it would not do so absent some emergency.  In recent years, though, it has regularly and almost routinely interfered in DNS operations, by seizing and removing domain names with minimal legal authority or oversight.
  As a result, the move for the UN to claim regulatory oversight has strengthened, enough so that the U.S.'s motion to delay or stop discussions about regulating the Internet at the current full ITU meeting failed.  As a result, discussions on possible Internet regulations will proceed, and possibly become a part of a revised ITU treaty.
  It seems quite likely that any revised ITU Treaty will include language giving the ITU, or some international body operating under the ITU or UN, regulatory and operational oversight over the global Internet.  There's also a strong consensus about providing a legal framework to facilitate combating criminal activities on the Internet, when the activities cross borders.
  The bigger battles will be over the nature and degree of oversight, particularly related to local control over content and Internet activities. 
The 12-day ITU conference, which began on Monday, largely pits revenue-seeking developing countries and authoritarian regimes that want more control over Internet content against U.S. policymakers and private Net companies that prefer the status quo.
There's also likely to be strong debate over proposals addressing security issues and the potential for information warfare.  Those discussions are likely to pit states trying to remove or lessen the anonymous nature of internet (ostensibly for security purposes) against business and human rights groups concerned that any such changes could also be used for monitoring Internet use and thus repression of internationally recognized human rights to privacy and speech.
   And where there's strong debate, there's the likelihood that deals and trade-offs will be made for support, and further politicization of the Internet.

   As noted previously, the U.S. has lost a lot of its moral authority in that debate - those pushing for more oversight and control can now argue that all they're looking for is the same things that the U.S. has asserted and used in recent years.  Still, groups like the ITU like to operate under the pretext of consensus, so it's unlikely that a revised treaty will be adopted and ratified.  What's likely is that a formal draft will be developed either for ratification by individual countries, or to serve as the basis for continued debate and politicization.

Source -  US fails to win early limit on net controls at global gathering,

There's nice overviews of issues at:
World War 3.0Vanity Fair
The U.N. and the Internet: What to expect, what to fear (FAQ), c/Net


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