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Who rules the Internet?

Editorial

The U.N. agency that oversees phone, radio and satellite communications last week stopped short of fragmenting the Internet into national fiefdoms.

December 16, 2012
  • Members of the International Telecommunication Union attend the closing session of World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.
Members of the International Telecommunication Union attend the closing… (Ali Haider / EPA )

The International Telecommunication Union, the little-known but influential United Nations agency that oversees phone, radio and satellite communications, last week stopped short of fragmenting the Internet into national fiefdoms, as some had feared it would do through a new global treaty. Instead, the draft that delegates approved barely mentions the Internet. The result wasn't exactly a victory for those who are committed to a free and open Internet, however. Although delegates rejected many of the worst proposals, they laid the groundwork for having governments, not Internet stakeholders, regulate the technical aspects of the Web.

The agency's effort to update a 24-year-old global telecommunications treaty exposed a sharp rift between the developed countries that were the earliest adopters of the Internet and the developing world, particularly Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes. The former, backed by Internet advocates worldwide, rightly argue that the Web's technical challenges are capably met by industry groups that set voluntary standards.

Many countries in the latter category, however, believe that the Internet is already controlled to some degree by one government — the United States — and thus its benefits aren't properly distributed. Some want greater control over online content and users, which they see as threats to their regimes; others have legitimate problems with access, spam and other issues that they don't think are getting enough attention from Internet authorities.

At the agency's meeting last week in Dubai, opposition from across the Internet helped persuade Russia and its allies to withdraw a proposal that critics said would have authorized countries to monitor users and censor content internationally while controlling Internet addresses and domain names within their borders. Such an approach could have Balkanized the Internet, with different countries giving different sites identical domain names.

Over U.S. objections, however, the delegates included language in the draft treaty that would give the agency an explicit role in regulating online content — specifically, spam — and cybersecurity. They also extended the treaty's regulatory umbrella to Internet service providers. These steps, along with a nonbinding resolution promoting the agency's potential role in overseeing the Internet, prompted delegates from the United States and 20 other countries to say they wouldn't sign the new treaty. Delegates from 88 countries embraced the draft, while those from 34 others remained on the fence.

Slated to take effect in 2015, the treaty itself isn't the real problem. The bigger issue is the claim the International Telecommunication Union seems to be staking to Internet governance. The agency is scheduled to meet again in 2014, when it may consider amending its constitution to assert jurisdiction formally over the technical side of the Web. Proponents of the free and open Internet have until then to convince the countries that backed the draft treaty that the current system of self-governance can and will work better for them than one under the thumb of governments around the globe.

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