Updated May 6, 2012, 8:11 p.m. ET
The U.N. Wants to Run the Internet
Authoritarian regimes want to prohibit anonymity on the Web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents.
By L. GORDON CROVITZ
Here's a wake-up call for the world's two billion Web users, who take for granted the light regulation of the Internet: A group of 193 countries will meet in December to reregulate the Internet. Every country, including China , Russia and Iran , gets a vote. Can a majority of countries be trusted to keep their hands off the Web?
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a low-profile United Nations organization, is overseeing this yearlong review of the Web. Its process is so secretive that proposals by member countries are confidential. The Obama admin istration has yet to nominate a negotiator for the U.S. side, even though Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last year that his goal was "international control over the Internet."
Word of a few proposals has leaked out. Several authoritarian regimes want to prohibit people from being anonymous on the Web, which would make it easier to find and arrest dissidents.
Another proposal would replace Icann, the private domain system under contract to the U.S. Commerce Department, with a system run by the U.N. Yet another idea is a new fee, payable whenever users access the Web "internationally"—whatever that means for a global Web, especially as servers increasingly are in the cloud, nowhere and everywhere—which would restore payments governments lost when international telephone charges fell. This would undermine the seamless nature of the Web.
The ITU has long regulated long-distance fixed telephone calls and helps keep satellites in assigned orbits. But unlike phones and satellites, which need an international regulator to maintain order, the Web does not have fixed locations. Still, the ITU is the regulator of choice for countries aiming to control the Web.
"When an invention becomes used by billions across the world, it no longer remains the sole property of one nation, however powerful that nation might be," Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the ITU, says in "World War 3.0," an article in the May issue of Vanity Fair.
Mr. Toure, a native of Mali who was educated in Leningrad and Moscow during the Soviet era, adds: "There should be a mechanism where many countries have an opportunity to have a say. I think that's democratic. Do you think that's democratic?"
This argument against an open Web echoes the "new world information and communication order" movement of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union tried to legitimize censorship. Unesco was the U.N. agency used for these arguments, with the U.S. and Britain withdrawing from the U.N. agency in the 1980s.
"The idea of a conference among nation states to decide the future of the Internet is itself not in keeping with the spirit of the times," Rebecca MacKinnon told me last week. Her recent book, "Consent of the Networked," describes how important it's been for the Internet to develop outside of multinational organizations, with technology companies, engineering associations and civil society groups having as much influence as governments. As Ms. MacKinnon notes, "this is especially true since a large percentage of governments do not reflect the consent of the governed."
At a planning meeting last month on proposed regulations, Mr. Toure said that the agenda for the December meeting, which will be held in Dubai , would not include ITU "governance" of the Web. But he refused to have this reassurance written into the record, which is further evidence of a power grab.
In her book, Ms. MacKinnon, a former CNN bureau chief in Beijing , cites how in 2005 the U.N. had the bad judgment to choose Tunisia under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for a conference that China used to lobby for more U.N. power over the Internet. Tunisia was the first government overthrown during the Arab Spring. A follow-up U.N. meeting was held in 2009 in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, also later removed from power.
"In the physical world, mechanisms of democratic politics and constitutional law have worked" to protect rights, Ms. MacKinnon wrote. "These mechanisms are no longer adequate for people whose physical lives now depend on what they can or cannot do (and what others can do to them) in the new digital spaces where sovereignty and power are ill-defined and highly contested."
Her suggestion is that multinational organizations continue with limited power over the Internet, while the technologists who maintain the plumbing of the Web share authority with human rights and other stakeholder groups interested in keeping the Web open. Applying the political-science notion of a social contract to the Web for "consent of the networked" is a novel approach. It recognizes that the Web is global, with an inherent ideology in favor of more transparency and greater access to information.
The Internet shows how creativity can flourish when government governs least. The Web allows permissionless innovation, where no one needs an operating license or other authorization. This doesn't leave much of a role for multinational groups like the U.N., even if some governments are plotting otherwise.
A version of this article appeared May 7, 2012, on page A15 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The U.N. Wants to Run the Internet.
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