Don't let the UN steal the Internet

Summary:If the UN seizes control of the Internet, they'll take the Internet from the voices of freedom and give it to nations who'd prefer to either kill it or refashion it into another tool of state control.

Look, I'm all for the UN as much as the next guy. I'm a firm believer in the idea of nations, all working peacefully together, to carry out America's agenda. Okay, I'm half kidding. But when the UN starts listening to particularly anti-freedom regimes and starts pushing for its own, particularly anti-Internet and anti-freedom agenda, I'm no longer a happy camper.

I'm currently a very not happy camper.

The problem is we (and I'll get back to the definition of "we" in a second), don't have the same values as many nations in the UN. China, for example, wants to control what Web sites its citizens can visit. Russia, wavering between burgeoning (and somewhat out-of-control capitalism) and old-school Soviet-style totalitarianism, wants the UN to control how IP addresses are allocated. Egypt, which was once something of an American ally, but is now apparently under Muslim fundamentalist control, tried to shut its people completely out of the Internet during a controversial election.

The thing is, we -- and here I'm referring to Internet users, the "we the Internet" concept I've talked about before -- we can't allow the Internet to be stolen out from under us.

That's essentially what the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is trying to do.

The way they're attempting this is by making a power grab for the plumbing that runs the Internet. Today, various aspects of the underlying Internet infrastructure are controlled by loose groups of allied techies and industry, with some influence and funding by various government and nonprofit entities.

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Changes to fundamental Internet infrastructure are accomplished more by an Internet-age town meeting than by a regulatory board comprised of national representatives. National agendas are almost always secondary, while Internet freedom is always a primary consideration.

That's today. But if the UN seizes control, that will all change.

Regimes will find it much easier to lock their populations out of the Internet. They'll find it much easier to block certain kinds of traffic. They'll find it much easier to demand tariff payments or even out-and-out bribes from individual Internet services and individual Web sites.

Here in the United States, where we're already battling for net neutrality in the mobile space against the corporate (and often anti-user) interests of vendors like Verizon and AT&T, UN control of the Internet could give the telcos a foothold against unfettered freedom of communication.

So how is all this happening?

There is a meeting planned in December by the ITU where they intend to vote on these issues. Since many ITU member nations are for regime stability and against freedom, they're quite likely to vote for transfering Internet infrastructure control away from our current techie-committee structure and to regime-based governance.

They might be able to do it, too. There is a concept in international law known as "precatory regulation." Precatory regulations are suggestions (like "don't run with scissors") that sometimes have the force of law. Basically, UN treaty signatories agree to abide by UN laws, but the while the treaties are often trumped by individual laws in each land, by default most nations choose to abide by the regulations.

That's a very roundy-bouty way of saying that if the UN says it gets to do something, America will often -- but not always -- play along.

This ITU plan -- and, in your author's humble opinion -- all forms of Internet infrastructure filtering that violate net neutrality, are fundamentally dangerous to the Internet as a whole. If the ITU is allowed to gain regulatory control over the Internet, individual Internet users and the techies who know how to run it will no longer have a voice.

Instead, the people running the Internet will be politicians -- and often politicians from unfriendly foreigh nations, nations who don't actually like the very existence of the Internet.

Think about it this way. The Internet is the ultimate disintermediating technology. It's also the ultimate empowering technology. Some nations are strong enough in their values and their laws to want their citizens to have a voice and to be empowered. Many nations are not.

If the ITU seizes control of the Internet this December, they'll take the Internet from the voices of freedom and give it, lock-stock-and-IP-addresses, to the very nations who'd prefer to either kill it, or refashion it into another tool of state control.

I can't give you an easy answer solution for how to stop this thing, but a good place to start is by writing your Congress-critters or contacting the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Internet belongs to We The People. Let's not give it up to totalitarian regimes like China and Russia. Otherwise, what we chose to say may be ... [DELETED BY THE STATE].

See also:

UPDATE: Fixed name of ITU. Also, fixed the spelling of "scissors," because, well, the spelling brain doesn't seem to turn on until the third cuppa joe.

Topics: Censorship, Government, Government : US, Privacy, Security, Telcos

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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