Should the UN Control the Internet?


ITUThe International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is part of United Nations, wants to assume management of the Internet, and its members will debate the plan when the group meets in Dubai in December. At this point, U.S. Congressional officials state that they intend to resist the effort wholeheartedly.

The Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee has called on the government to take a position on control of the Internet, making it clear that the United States supports “a global Internet free from government control” and is anxious to preserve its current multi-stakeholder model.

At the same time, some observers point out that this is ironic since some officials attempted to exercise this kind of control by promoting PIPA and SOPA not that long ago. When the two bills were being considered in Congress with copyright protection as their primary goal, they were uniformly criticized as harmful to the open Internet and prone to cause serious obstacles to freedom of speech.

Apparently, the reason the ITU has taken this stand is that the Internet is global in nature, and its members feel it should be controlled with worldwide standards. At this point, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN), a private organization based in the United States, oversees the inner workings of the Internet.

While ICANN states that it manages a multi-stakeholder prototype, including the World Wide Web Consortium, the Internet Engineering Task Force and similar roups, the nonprofit has been criticized for various conflicts of interest and unnecessarily expanding the domain system. Some feel that domain registrars took an unfortunate step that might make the Internet increasingly complicated.

Although the current system has its flaws, those who criticize ITU’s proposal feel that giving the UN control of the Internet would make it subject to the control of countries such as Russia and China, who are far from being totally committed to democracy and freedom of speech.

If the ITU has its way, the UN might have to consider a wide range of issues, such as services based on local laws or blocking access to certain websites. In addition, critics feel that the ITU might tamper with the payment systems currently in place for dealing with off-Web traffic as it circulates. They fear that ITU members will try to obtain a portion of those payments for the benefit of their state-owned Internet and telephone companies, in view of the uncertain global economy.

Robert McDowell, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, also stated that some countries belonging to the ITU want to restrain the Internet’s fundamental freedom because it is totally unacceptable to autocracies and dictatorships.

Along with the resolution the Congressional subcommittee has passed and various statements critical of the ITU proposal issued by groups including the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Internet Society, a number of petitions are circulating on the Web to increase the public’s awareness regarding the UN’s plan. One states that the ITU should release their preparatory documents, consider the user’s role, and abandon any idea of centralizing Internet control through the UN.

PIPA and SOPA were derailed by activism on the part of concerned citizens, but those documents were bills being promoted in Congress, rather than the United Nations. At the UN, particularly within the ITU, certain states, which are very powerful, want to control the Internet in a manner that surpasses both SOPA and PIPA. Whether criticism from any corner will be sufficient to stop ITU’s effort is certainly open to debate. However, the question will be answered fully and conclusively when the UN meets in December.