Regulating the Internet is something Americans have resisted here at home. Now that fight is going global.
The United Nations—of course—has an agency that oversees international telecommunications. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was founded in 1865, when the telegraph was its main concern. Now it’s trying to expand its influence over modern-day communications.
Starting on Monday, the 193 member states of the ITU will meet in Dubai to update the 1988 International Telecommunications Regulations.
The ITU is looking to transform itself into a “global Internet rule maker,” according to a new Issue Brief by Heritage’s James Gattuso and Brett Schaefer. “At a time when competition should be making it less relevant, it is expanding its turf.” They set the scene:
Some countries have proposed granting the ITU more authority over the Internet and making other changes purportedly for such goals as enhancing cybersecurity, reducing costs for developing-country consumers, and increasing investment by telecommunications providers. However, many of these seemingly benign proposals could undermine the Internet freedoms that are essential to spurring economic development and protecting human rights. The U.S. should oppose these efforts.
As with other United Nations bodies, the U.S. gets one vote that is considered equally with countries like Libya. Of course, in the case of the Internet, many countries’ governments consider it a threat—online communications have helped people organize protests and uprisings like the “Arab Spring.”
“Governments that will be in attendance at the closed-door…summit—including some that currently censor Internet traffic within their own borders—have proposed amendments to the treaty that could make it easier to monitor and control how everyone uses the Web,” warns Eric Johnson of AllThingsD.com.
Former Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Irving said that “fear is a great driver, and people like to regulate what they fear.”
The ITU’s process is anything but transparent, so most of the key details known so far have been leaked, appropriately, on the Internet. According to the leaked documents, several troubling proposals are on the table from different countries, many of which resent the current Internet framework because of a perceived dominance by the United States.
Russia would require networks to identify subscribers when delivering traffic. The sponsoring states argue that these powers would help them fight cybercrime, but they could also be used for censorship and political suppression.
Schaefer and Gattuso warn that regulating the Internet is, in short, a very bad idea. “At best, this is unnecessary, as the Internet is doing quite well under the current framework. At worst, the expansion will allow the U.N.—parent organization of the ITU—to stifle the Web.”
The House of Representatives has already spoken out against this international regulation. In August, it unanimously passed (414–0) a resolution urging the Obama Administration to “clearly articulate…the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control.” Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) introduced a similar version of this resolution in the Senate, but it has not been voted on yet.
America cannot stand for any rules that justify or facilitate censorship or repression, or an expansion of the authority of the ITU over the Internet. The freedom of people around the world may depend on it.