U.N. Agency Reassures: We Just Want to Break the Internet, Not Take it Over

Published October 3, 2012

In recent months, the International Telecommunications Union, the U.N.’s telephone regulatory agency, has been fighting hard to quiet a growing chorus of warnings that it is maneuvering to rewrite the rules of Internet governance.

Worse, according to critics, it is doing so at the behest of the world’s most repressive governments and failing European telephone companies, both of which see the relatively-malleable ITU and its upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), as their best hope for achieving separate but related agendas.

“Contrary to some of the sensationalist claims in the press,” ITU Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré shot back in a speech last weekat Columbia University, “WCIT is definitively not about taking control of the Internet or restricting people’s freedom of expression or freedom of speech.”

Despite Dr. Touré’s reassurances, however, claims that the WCIT is being hijacked are hardly sensational–nor are they being raised by “the press.”  Rather, a remarkably broad coalition of governments in both developed and developing nations, advocacy groups on the left and the right, and leading international Internet engineering groups have all been sounding the alarm.

In particular, the international Internet Society, which coordinates the virtual committees and task forces that maintain the Internet’s core protocols, has been especially vocal in its criticism of ITU maneuvering.  ISOC has repeatedly urged the U.N. not to “interfere with the continued innovation and evolution of telecommunications networks and the Internet.”

In the U.S., equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats have also expressed concern over the upcoming conference.  Just last week, the Senate passed its version of a joint resolution condemning efforts to change today’s multi-stakeholder governance model.

The resolution urges the Department of State to emphasize the “consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today.”

Earlier in the summer, the House passed the same resolution unanimously.

The more the U.N. insists it’s not trying to take over the Internet, the more nervous Internet users around the world become.

That’s because threats to the current—and highly successful—system of Internet self-governance are very real.  The WCIT conference, which takes place late this year in Dubai, will consider changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations, the leading multi-lateral treaty dealing with cross-border communications.

Since the treaty has not been renegotiated since 1988, the ITU and its members are using the conference to consider what role, if any, the ITU should play in regulating IP communications.

The ITU, at least, believes the agency should be the star.  “The 1988 ITRs drove a harmonious market ecosystem for investment and innovation,” Dr. Touré said in his Columbia speech, “and the 2012 ITRs will do the same for the new and future growth of [information and communications technologies] around the globe.”

This is hardly the first—or last— time the U.N. has cast a jaundiced eye in the direction of Internet oversight.  Among other aggressive moves, for example, it has tried repeatedly since at least 2004 to wrest power fromICANN, the multistakeholder body created in 1998 to oversee domain names and addresses.

Dozens of proposals secretly circulating ahead of the WCIT meeting would go well beyond usurping ICANN’s authority, and would if adopted introduce sweeping architectural changes that would allow the ITU and its members to redesign the Internet to something much more controllable.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg BNA, Dr. Touré denied that his organization is trying to take over Internet governance. But the Secretary-General was also careful to define what he meant by “Internet governance” very narrowly.  “Internet Governance as we know it today,” he said, concerns only “Domain Names and addresses.”

“These are issues that we’re not talking about at all,” Touré said. “We’re not pushing that, we don’t need to.”