It’s easy to understand why countries like Russia, China and Iran would want to rewire the Internet, cutting off access to their citizens and undermining the idea of a World Wide Web. What’s more surprising is that U.S. diplomats are letting authoritarian regimes hijack an obscure U.N. agency to undermine how the Internet works, including for Americans.
The failure by U.S. negotiators to stop attacks on the Internet became known only through documents leaked last week. They concern a U.N. agency known as the International Telecommunications Union. Founded in 1865 to regulate the telegraph, the body (now part of the U.N.) is planning a World Conference on International Telecommunications in December, when the 193 U.N. member countries, each of which has a single vote, could use the International Telecommunications Regulations to take control of the Internet. The U.N. process is mind-numbing, but as Vincent Cerf, one of the founders of the Web, recently told Congress, this U.N. involvement means “the open Internet has never been at a higher risk than it is now.”
The process is secret, so it was hard to know what authoritarian governments were plotting or how the U.S. was responding. This column last month detailed some of the proposals, but other commentators doubted that any changes would be material.
Disclosure came when two academics decided to use the openness of the Web to help save the Web. George Mason University researchers Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado earlier this month created a site called WCITLeaks.org. They invited anyone with access to the documents describing the U.N. proposals to post them, so as “to foster greater transparency.” These documents are not classified but had not been made public.
The WCITLeaks site hit pay dirt this past Friday. Someone leaked the 212-page planning document being used by governments to prepare for the December conference. Mr. Dourado summarized: “These proposals show that many ITU member states want to use international agreements to regulate the Internet by crowding out bottom-up institutions, imposing charges for international communication, and controlling the content that consumers can access online.”
The broadest proposal in the draft materials is an initiative by China to give countries authority over “the information and communication infrastructure within their state” and require that online companies “operating in their territory” use the Internet “in a rational way”—in short, to legitimize full government control. The Internet Society, which represents the engineers around the world who keep the Internet functioning, says this proposal “would require member states to take on a very active and inappropriate role in patrolling” the Internet.
Several proposals would give the U.N. power to regulate online content for the first time, under the guise of protecting against computer malware or spam. Russia and some Arab countries want to be able to inspect private communications such as email. Russia and Iran propose new rules to measure Internet traffic along national borders and bill the originator of the traffic, as with international phone calls. That would result in new fees to local governments and less access to traffic from U.S. “originating” companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple. A similar idea has the support of European telecommunications companies, even though the Internet’s global packet switching makes national tolls an anachronistic idea.
Another proposal would give the U.N. authority over allocating Internet addresses. It would replace Icann, the self-regulating body that helped ensure the stability of the Internet, under a contract from the U.S. Commerce Department.
According to notes in the leaked document, the U.S. delegation filed some objections here and there—but politely. The U.S. calls the broad Chinese proposal on regulating the Internet “both unnecessary and beyond the appropriate scope” of U.N. regulation. “The U.S. looks forward to a further explanation from China with regard to the proposed amendments, and we note that we may have further reaction at that time.” Notes in the negotiating document say the U.S. delegation also objects to proposals in which “the text suggests that the ITU has a role in content-related issues. We do not believe it does.”
These are weak responses even by Obama administration standards. Ever since the pre-Internet era of the 1970s, authoritarian regimes have sought to use the U.N. to establish an “information world order” based on government control, not open flows of information. The U.S. learned during the Cold War that the only way to stop U.N. meddling is to wield a big stick. Washington had to leave Unesco when it played the kind of dangerous game the ITU has now chosen.
It may be hard for the billions of Web users or the optimists of Silicon Valley to believe that an obscure agency of the U.N. can threaten their Internet, but authoritarian regimes are busy lobbying a majority of the U.N. members to vote their way. The leaked documents disclose a U.S. side that has hardly begun to fight back. That’s no way to win this war.
A version of this article appeared June 18, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The U.N.’s Internet Power Grab.