Some nations will be trying to move the Internet under a regime of UN oversight and control at a meeting in Dubai in December.
The International Telecommunications Union is a 150-year-old organization spawned in the era of the telegraph, and now operating under the auspices of the United Nations. The ITU will be hosting the twelfth World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in the United Arab Emirates late this year. On the agenda is the renegotiation of the binding treaty known as the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). The version of the ITRs now in effect was put in place in 1998, before the advent of the Web and at a time when the Internet existed as a US academic and military resource.
The ITRs govern matters relating to international telecommunications services and transport, interconnection and interoperability of telecommunications facilities, and accounting and settlement of international voice traffic among government-run telephony agencies and private carriers. They have nothing to say about the Internet.
Some of the 193 countries bound for WCIT-12 want that changed. Various proposals from Russia, China, India, Brazil, and other nations suggest everything from mandatory settlement rates replacing peering agreements, to taking over the functions of ICANN, the IETF, the Internet Society, and the W3C, to setting and enforcing international rules on spam, child pornography, security, and privacy.
The Internet grew up in a world that was rapidly deregulating and spinning out state-owned telecommunications enterprises and services. When it came time to set up governance for the US-developed Internet, in the middle and late 1990s, the US never even considered involving the ITU, which was viewed as a relic of the days of government-monopoly telephone services. Instead, management of Internet naming, numbering, and protocols was turned over to a new US-based non-profit corporation, ICANN. The hands-off governance has continued to evolve with the Internet Engineering Task Force, Internet Society, and World Wide Web Consortium all playing parts.
The growth of the Internet represents probably the most successful demonstration in history of the power of markets under light regulation. Still, many nations chafe at the US's influence over the Internet's direction, and are understandably unhappy with the dwindling telephone revenues the Internet is disintermediating. They want to bring Internet policy, and even technical standards, under UN control.
A white paper from Cisco written in the mid-2000s gives an excellent perspective on these diametrically opposing views of the best way to run the Internet.
By all appearances, the US government has been working to raise awareness of the dangers of an ITU takeover of Internet functions. The head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration argued for "consensus driven technical standards... [agreed to by] multi-stakeholder institutions that govern standards for different layers of Internet components." An FCC official stated, "Internet services are not in the [ITRs], and they should not be," Bloomberg reported.
Behind the scenes, by one unsourced report the US has been working for a year to narrow the scope of what could happen in Dubai. Martin Mueller is a professor at Syracuse University who has been involved in questions of Internet governance since the birth of the Web. He posted a memo, written last January and purporting to be from unnamed US government policy makers, that seeks to quiet fears about the situation. Mueller writes that the according to the memo, which he says was circulated among private-sector stakeholders, the US push has been successful: "The existing ITRs have been accepted as the framework for negotiations. There are no pending proposals to invest the ITU with ICANN-like Internet governance authority."
While scare stories about The End of the Internet As We Know It are fun, the truth probably lies closer to that described by Prof. Mueller. The denationalized, liberalized approach to Internet governance and telecommunications certainly has it adversaries, and it will be a good idea to keep a close eye on developments coming out of Dubai late this year.