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The U.N. vs. the Internet: The fight escalates

The House is expected to advance a resolution condemning efforts by the U.N. to insert itself into governance of the Internet. But some interpret leaked documents as suggesting that the U.S. is being far too tepid in its responses to a key international communications treaty being negotiated in secret.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected this week to approve a resolution (PDF) strongly critical of growing efforts to transfer key aspects of Internet governance to the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations.

The resolution was introduced by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) as part of a hearing last month on the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications, which will convene in Dubai late this year to rewrite an international treaty on communications overseen by the ITU.

The WCIT process is secret, but proposals drafted by the 193 ITU member nations and nonvoting affiliate organizations have begun leaking out. CNET was first to reportearlier this month on a proposal by the European Telecommunications Network Operators association that would, if made part of the new treaty, impose a "sending party" tax on content providers, upending longstanding principles of Internet architecture.

That leaked document was posted to the Web site WCITLeaks, which has since published more proposed changes to the treaty.

Since the House hearing, tensions over WCIT have been rising at home and abroad. Over the weekend, WCITLeaks posted a key planning document (PDF) summarizing several radical proposals currently circulating in advance of the conference.

These include efforts, such as ETNO's, to use the treaty to gain competitive and financial leverage over the most successful Internet companies, most of which are based in the U.S., including Apple, Google, and Facebook. Such proposals could effectively impose the same extortionary taxes on incoming content that once characterized international long distance calls. (Many countries still operate under nationalized or seminationalized monopoly ISPs.)

But China and other repressive governments, well aware of the increasingly important role played by the Internet in popular uprisings around the world, are also looking to WCIT as a golden opportunity to turn off the free flow of information at their borders and introduce U.N.-sanctioned surveillance technologies to spy on Internet communications.

Several proposals in the newly leaked document, for example, would authorize governments to inspect incoming Internet traffic for malware or other evidence of "criminal" activity, opening the door to wide scale, authorized censorship.

The Internet Society, the parent organization of engineering groups that develop and maintain core Internet technologies, object to these proposals as requiring countries to "take a very active and inappropriate role in patrolling and enforcing newly defined standards of behavior."

The document also discloses direct attacks on the engineering-driven governance of the Internet. A proposal from Russia and Cote d'Ivoire, for example, would transfer authority to the ITU to allocate and distribute "some part of IPV6 addresses," similar to the agency's historic involvement in the assignment of international area codes.

The Internet Society objected to this proposal as well, noting that it "would be disruptive to the existing, successful mechanisms" for allocating and distributing Internet addresses. The transition to IPV6, which began only a few weeks ago, is widely seen as an example of the speed and efficiency of an Internet run without traditional government interference.

Rep. Bono Mack's resolution highlights these and other threats from the secretive and freewheeling WCIT process, in which member states regardless of their size get the same single vote. It encourages those negotiating on behalf of the United States to articulate "the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control" and to "preserve and advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet today."

In prepared remarks today, Rep. Bono Mack noted that

In many ways, we're facing a referendum on the future of the Internet. A vote for my resolution is a vote to keep the Internet free from government control and to prevent Russia, China, and other nations from succeeding in giving the U.N. unprecedented power over Web content and infrastructure. That's the quickest way for the Internet to one day become a wasteland of unfilled hopes, dreams, and opportunities.

Yet some see the U.S. reaction so far as being too tepid. On Monday, former Wall Street Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz blasted the Obama administration's "weak responses" to some of the most dangerous WCIT proposals as revealed in the leaked documents.

"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," Crovitz wrote, "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."

Eli Dourado, one of two researchers at George Mason University who created the WCITLeaks site, went farther, arguing in a blog post that WCIT is not a fight between liberals and conservatives nor a "USA vs. the world" issue.

The escalating battle, Dourado wrote, is really one between Internet users worldwide and their governments: "Who benefits from increased ITU oversight of the Internet? Certainly not ordinary users in foreign countries, who would then be censored and spied upon by their governments with full international approval. The winners would be autocratic regimes, not their subjects."

Which may in part explain why the U.S. has remained both engaged and "polite" in the WCIT process so far. "I hope that the awareness we raise through WCITLeaks," Dourado wrote, "will not only highlight how foolish the U.S. government is for playing the lose-lose game with the ITU, but how hypocritical it is for preaching Net freedom while spying on, censoring, and regulating its own citizens online."