The UN's Coming Internet Power Grab


Next month, the World Conference on International Communications (WCIT) will be held in Dubai. At the conference, 193 member countries will gather to consider revising and updating a decades old teleccomunications treaty overseen by the United Nation's International Telecommunications Union. What might those revisions look like? The participants aren't all that interested in letting outsiders know: Proposals aren't officially released to the public. But thanks to WCITLeaks, an open-access run by Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, two tech policy research fellows with the The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, we've gotten a peek at a few of the ideas that member nations are submitting for consideration. And what we've seen so far is both predictable and worrying: Nations with free-expressions-wary governments across the globe are hoping to use the UN process to firm up their control on the Net within their borders. 

At CNET, Larry Downes notes that this is a longstanding goal for many emerging countries: 

Proposals leaked earlier from Russia, China, Iran, and others would authorize member nations, with UN blessing, to inspect and censor incoming and outgoing Internet traffic on the premise of monitoring criminal behavior, filtering spam, or protecting national security.

Curbing the Internet is a priority for these countries that goes well beyond the WCIT process. China, for example, recently hosted its first annual "Internet Roundtable for Emerging Countries," attended by Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa. According to observers of the meeting, the participants agreed that "The Internet must be managed by governments, with a particular focus on the influence of social networks on society."

Downes also points to a new Russian proposal that he says goes a step further than others that have leaked:

Currently, the ITRs [International Telecommunications Regulations] cover only international telecommunications services (PDF). But the Russians propose adding a new section to the treaty to deal explicitly with "IP-based networks." Bringing the Internet into the treaty in any capacity would represent a major expansion of the scope of the ITU's authority.

The leaked proposal would strongly endorse national control over those parts of the Internet that reside within a country's borders, including ISPs, traffic, and engineering. One suggested change to the treaty, for example, declares that "Member States shall have the sovereign right to manage the Internet within their national territory, as well as to manage national Internet domain names."

Russia barely makes any attempt to hide its goals. As Downes notes, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure last yearthat Russia was keen on the idea of "establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capability of the International Telecommunications Union."

Americans have seen various attempts to assert somewhat greater regulatory over the Internet in recent years, but the real threat to open Net access is overseas, where there remains deep skepticism about unfettered Internet access. I've heard at least one senior diplomat from a Western nation talk candidly in private about the need to regulate social networks in order to keep tabs on extremist political movements. It's not surprising, really, that social networks would cause the greatest concern to the political class: They offer citizens one of the best opportunities to organize and communicate quickly and with minimal or no governmental interference. Which is why, of course, we see anxious political leaders across the globe looking for ways to keep tabs on them.