Home Issues for 2012 #1: Should the UN Govern the Internet?

Issues for 2012 #1: Should the UN Govern the Internet?

“The communications public policy effort that may affect all of us the most in 2012… will take place far from our shores,” stated U.S. Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell, in a speech in Washington before a bar association two weeks ago. “As we sit here today, scores of countries, including China, Russia and India, are pushing hard for international regulation of Internet governance.”

We talk a lot, almost ad nauseum, about the “free and open Internet.” What we sometimes fail to take into account is that freedom has many… shall we say, facets, which cast different shades of light at different angles. From one angle, the story looks like this: The free Internet is threatened by the incursion of governments that would seek to suppress individual freedoms through the systematic restructuring of Web services, with the burden being placed on service providers to comply. But that’s not coming from Comm. McDowell, or from the opponents of SOPA legislation. It’s the new populist battle cry of Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister seeking once again to become President.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the world’s principal standards maintenance organization for electronic communications, and has been so since 1865. Today, it is an agency of the United Nations. Not all that long ago, when the act of going online was largely a function of the telephone, it was ITU (and its predecessor, CCITT) that managed the multi-stakeholder process of standardizing signal processing with telephone modems. The syntax of today’s e-mail addresses, using the @ symbol, is a direct descendant of a CCITT standard. It is no minor player.

Last June 15 at U.N. Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, the ITU’s Secretary-General, Hamadoun Toure, met with the Russian Prime Minister for what began as an innocuous photo-op. It’s at photo-ops like these where Putin (a man whose own publicists share photos of him fly fishing with his shirt off) likes to lob verbal grenades to see how long it takes them to go off. It was here that he lobbed a big one, and the blast hasn’t even really happened yet.

“We are thankful to you for the ideas that you have proposed for discussion,” Mr. Putin told Toure, according to the Russian government’s official English-language transcript. “One of them is establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union. If we are going to talk about the democratization of international relations, I think a critical sphere is information exchange and global control over such exchange. This is certainly a priority on the international agenda.”

“Global control” is Putin-ese for a kind of transparent, but centralized, governance system. For example, Russia’s proposed global nuclear nonproliferation regime, which is opened up for international cooperation but centralized around Russia, is called the Global Control System. It is the counterpart of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order.”

In a live public forum last week, Mr. Putin gave another interesting hint about his vision for Internet governance. Asked what his government could do about the rise of objectionable content over the Web, Mr. Putin suggested that it is not government’s place to do anything about it directly. Instead, he argued, government should offer a proactive alternative. “There is only one way to confront [the problem],” Russian news service Publiciti translates him as saying. “That is by offering other options and solutions on the same platform, and by doing it much more creative and interesting.”

But because the Internet mirrors society now, he continued, law enforcement agencies should have as much jurisdiction in virtual society as they do in actual society, saying, “Culture or even incivility of what is going on, on the Internet, is the same what is happening on roads [in our cities]… Law enforcement agencies have to watch what is happening on the Internet, such as pedophilia and other problems.”

He’s not really wrong, in some ways, depending on how the light hits you. But Mr. Putin also leaves open the possibility of a kind of agency only a former Soviet bureaucrat could appreciate: a bureaucratic agency to reduce the spread of bureaucratic agencies. And that sent up red flags (with a little gold emblem in the corner) at Comm. McDowell’s office. As he noted in his speech two weeks ago:

Even though Internet-based technologies are improving billions of lives everywhere, some governments feel left out. They have formed impressive coalitions, and their efforts have progressed significantly. So merely saying “no” to any changes to the current structure of Internet governance is likely to be a losing proposition… Accordingly, we should encourage a dialogue among all interested parties and broaden the multi-stakeholder umbrella to find ways to address all reasonable concerns. As part of this conversation, we should underscore the tremendous benefits that the Internet has yielded for the developing world through the multi-stakeholder model. Upending the fundamentals of the multi-stakeholder model is likely to Balkanize the Internet at best, and suffocate it at worst. A top-down, centralized, international regulatory overlay is antithetical to the architecture of the Net, which is a global network of networks without borders. No government, let alone an intergovernmental body, can make decisions in lightning-fast Internet time. Economic and political progress everywhere, but especially in the developing world, would grind to a halt as engineering and business decisions inevitably would become politicized within a global regulatory body.

But proponents of ITU governance are touting the failure of the multi-stakeholder model – as represented by ICANN, the steward of the Internet’s domain hierarchy – by citing the recent, and much anticipated, chaos surrounding the opening up of the .XXX top-level domain. Now stakeholders whose livelihood depends on their being disassociated with pornography (for example, Penn State University) are just as much in the market for .XXX domain names as adult content publishers. And top-level domain registrars are going so far as to market those domains for non-adult publishers for that very purpose, even on television, with the tagline, “Get yours… before someone else does!”

It’s the infusion of Western commercialism and the corruption that capitalism brings forth… all over again.

In an historically replete and comprehensive overview of the subject recently posted to Cisco’s corporate blog, Geoff Huston, chief scientist with the Asia/Pacific Network Information Center, cites the dangers ahead if Putin and others continue their success at characterizing ICANN as a disaster:

There are still the lingering concerns that if ICANN, as a private-sector entity, were to once more explore positioning itself on the brink of imminent demise, the collective task of picking up the pieces and continuing to support the operation of the Internet is one that appears to have a very uncomfortable level of uncertainty. In addition, the perception of ICANN as an entity whose single purpose is to maintain an entrenched advantaged position of the United States and of U.S.-based enterprises in the global Internet has been widely promulgated. It is often portrayed that ICANN offers no viable mechanisms for other national or regional interests at a governmental level to alter this somewhat disturbing picture of international imbalance. Although other aspects of international activity fall under various political or trading frameworks, and national and regional interests and positions can be collectively considered and negotiated, critics of ICANN point out that the message ICANN sends to the rest of the world is that the United States is withholding the Internet from conventional international governance processes. Skeptical commentators interpret the U.S. administration’s use of ICANN as at best a delaying technique to gain time to further strengthen the position of U.S.-based enterprises across a lucrative global Internet market, aided and abetted by a compliant industry body that masquerades as an international standards organization.

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