WASHINGTON — For the next few days, the eyes of people who care about the fate of the Internet will be sharply focused on a meeting in Dubai. That’s where representatives of the 193 members of the United Nations have come together to talk about a new treaty on global telecommunications. The previous one dates back to 1988, when fax machines were still cool and cell phones (for those lucky few who had them) were the size of a brick.
Normally this isn’t the sort of thing that would prompt headlines. But the run-up to the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced “wicket”) has stirred up some scary talk. If you believe the Wall Street Journal, the Internet is about to be “rewired by bureaucrats” — a process it likens to “handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla.” A commentator at Fox News could barely restrain himself from summoning the black helicopters: “The future of freedom in the 21st century may be about to be deleted, at the click of a mouse.” Meanwhile, an op-ed at HuffPost huffed that the very fate of the “open Internet” is at stake.
Remarkable. Finally America’s left and right seem to have found a common enemy: the U.N.’s nefarious ninja army of Internet oppressors.
It’s gratifying to see that people are so eager to react to perceived threats to the freedom of cyberspace — something that too many of us probably take for granted. And there’s no question that there are major dangers to the openness of the Internet out there. But it’s not the United Nations that we should be really worried about. “The real threats to the Internet come from nation states,” says Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. “And that includes some of the Western governments as well as the more authoritarian governments.”
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) — the group that is meeting in Dubai this week — is a bureaucratic organization that was founded in the nineteenth century to ensure that different national telegraph networks could talk to each other. It consists of representatives from each member government. That should give you an idea of how flexible it is.
The ITU is also weak. Each country has one vote, meaning that most proposals will get watered down to a least common denominator. And the ITU has little power to enforce its rules. Despite all the conspiracy theories, the U.N. has never really shown itself to be good at imposing its will on the world. Why would we think that it could have its way with the notoriously protean Internet?
Now, it’s true that Russia has floated the idea of giving greater powers to the ITU, an effort designed to give national governments much more of a say over cyberspace than they have now. The proposal was a non-starter, and it was withdrawn before WCIT even got started. And it’s also true that China has quietly lobbied for some very dubious practices that it has tried to smuggle into global technical standards. But that initiative doesn’t seem to have gotten very far, either.
Yes, these moves are ominous. There’s no question that the same governments that aim to maintain tight control over the Internet within their own borders would like to see the same philosophy on the international level. “It took a while for governments to figure out how potentially destabilizing Internet access is,” says Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “Now that they think they’ve understood it, they’re considering acting in a way to protect themselves.” And some of them clearly see the United Nations as the place to pursue this aim.
It’s not only the police states that want to meddle with global Internet governance. Some democracies — India, Brazil and other places of the developing world — do, too. Their motives often have less to do with politics than money. Some of them want to erect protectionist barriers that would compel the big Western Internet companies like Facebook and Google to pay for access to their national markets. (The countries in question want to use the resulting fees to build their own internet infrastructure.)
What all these efforts have in common is that they aim to undermine America’s control of the institutions that currently define how the Internet works — or at least that’s how many other countries see it. The Internet was invented in the United States, of course, and Americans still play an outsized role in shaping its operations. The domain name system of the Internet is controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a private, non-profit corporation that is subject to U.S. Commerce Department oversight.
This has made ICANN the focus of considerable ire in foreign capitals. Russia, China and Brazil have talked about shifting control over domain names to the U.N. or to individual national governments. Earlier this year, a commentator at the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, railed against U.S. dominance: “The United States controls and owns all cyberspaces in the world, and other countries can only lease Internet addresses and domain names from the United States, leading to the U.S. hegemonic monopoly over the world’s Internet.”
There are undoubtedly many people in Washington who wish that this were true. But it’s doubtful that anyone exercises anything like a “hegemonic monopoly” over the global Internet today, which, despite its origins in the U.S. Department of Defense, has evolved over the years into a vast, decentralized entity — less an organization than an organism — that depends on voluntary standards. Today most of the web’s operations are defined by an ever-shifting cloud of companies, industry groups, and users. “’Internet governance’ is probably the wrong term to use,” says Kevin Werbach, a professor at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. “There isn’t a need for a body to govern the Internet.”
Its defenders call the reigning order “the multi-stakeholder model.” It certainly has its problems. But it has the virtue of transparency — unlike the ITU (although, to its credit, the WCIT has responded to its critics by allowing a live webcast of the proceedings). It’s also a model that has been largely vindicated by experience; after all, it’s worked pretty well so far.
It’s striking, in fact, that the Europeans, who don’t necessarily side with Washington on many issues nowadays and who tend to be quite fond of multilateral forums, have supported the United States in its efforts to maintain the Internet status quo.
None of this, of course, means that there aren’t threats to Internet freedom out there today — and yes, even in America itself. Syracuse’s Mueller notes that no other government in the world has surveillance resources to compare with Washington’s. Powerful U.S. content providers are constantly lobbying to shape the web according to their interests. SOPA and PIPA have been defeated for the moment, but no one should doubt that their sponsors in the business world will seize the next possible opening to punish online copyright infringement in the most draconian of ways.
We all have an interest in keeping the system of Internet administration as open as possible — and, if anything, making it even more decentralized. Reforming ICANN, which has attracted its own share of controversy lately, might be a start. But handing over greater control of the Internet to governments would definitely be a move in the wrong direction
Speaking of which, it would be interesting to hear what Russian and Chinese Internet users, as opposed to their governments, have to say on these matters. Funnily enough, no one in Moscow or Beijing seems to be asking them. Even in democratic India, for that matter, technologists and activists have scolded officials for shutting them out of deliberations before the Dubai conference — and rightly so. “The Internet is not a government-run telephone network,” says Werbach. “Why is that only governments that should make these decisions?” It’s a good question. And the answer is that they shouldn’t.
Caryl is a fellow at the Legatum Institute, a contributing editor a