UN Control of Internet

Since having written a novel myself, I'm always looking for an idea or premise that would make for an interesting, exciting story.

How about the following? At the behest of authoritarian and communist regimes, the United Nations is used as a vehicle for gaining more control over the Internet, thereby allowing those governments to gain more resources and power, limit freedom, and undermine parts of our economy.

Unfortunately, this is not farfetched fiction. It's a very real concern due to a United Nations effort that was kicked off in Geneva in late February and will proceed to a culmination in Dubai towards the end of this year. The considerable risk is that a treaty, which would only need approval of a majority of 193 nations, would result in an attempt at centralized regulation of the Internet, which would result in a de facto fragmentation of the Internet. That, in turn, would restrict opportunity, communication, prosperity and freedom.

As reported on October 20, 2011 by Bill Gertz in The Washington Times, "Last month, Russia, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan submitted a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly calling for giving individual states the right to control the Internet. The resolution, submitted Sept. 14, calls for ‘an international code of conduct for information security.' It requests ‘international deliberations within the United Nations framework on such an international code, with the aim of achieving the earliest possible consensus on international norms and rules guiding the behavior of states in the information space.' China tightly controls the Internet through a cybersecurity police force estimated to be more than 10,000 people who monitor Internet users and websites. Russia's authoritarian government has taken steps in recent years to curb Internet freedoms. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also are authoritarian regimes that seek to control Internet use."

Writing in The Wall Street Journal on February 21, 2011, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell explained, "On Feb. 27, a diplomatic process will begin in Geneva that could result in a new treaty giving the United Nations unprecedented powers over the Internet. Dozens of countries, including Russia and China, are pushing hard to reach this goal by year's end. As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last June, his goal and that of his allies is to establish ‘international control over the Internet' through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a treaty-based organization under U.N. auspices."

Concerns have come from various corners.

For example, Gertz reported, "The commander of the U.S. Cyber Command said Thursday that he does not favor giving the United Nations the power to regulate the Internet... But asked whether the U.N. should have a regulation role, [Army Gen. Keith Alexander, who is also director of the National Security Agency,] said: ‘No. I'm not for regulating, per se. I'm concerned about it, and this is a tough question. I would say, generally speaking, I'm not into that portion of regulating as you would espouse.'"

On February 27, FoxNews.com highlighted that a memorandum from the Obama administration. It was stated in the article, "The memo, dated Jan. 23, states that in January 2011, U.S. officials harbored ‘great and widespread concern' that the conference ‘would be a battle over investing the (International Telecommunication Union) with explicit Internet governance authority.' However, American diplomats, the memo maintains, succeeded in ‘narrowing the focus' of the conference by emphasizing the administration's ‘deregulatory position at every opportunity.' The memo concludes that the likelihood of the conference posing any ‘foundational' threats to the freedom of the Internet ‘seems low at this time.'"

That's a bit of a mixed message. While the emphasis on fighting off international regulation is correct, there seems to be a somewhat disconcerting lack of urgency.

FCC Commissioner McDowell is obviously far more concerned.

First, he noted the great success of Internet deregulation and privatization. He pointed out, "If successful, these new regulatory proposals would upend the Internet's flourishing regime, which has been in place since 1988. That year, delegates from 114 countries gathered in Australia to agree to a treaty that set the stage for dramatic liberalization of international telecommunications. This insulated the Internet from economic and technical regulation and quickly became the greatest deregulatory success story of all time." A bit later, he added, "This consensus-driven private-sector approach has been the key to the Net's phenomenal success. In 1995, shortly after it was privatized, only 16 million people used the Internet world-wide. By 2011, more than two billion were online-and that number is growing by as much as half a million every day. This explosive growth is the direct result of governments generally keeping their hands off the Internet sphere."

Second, McDowell warned, "Even though Internet-based technologies are improving billions of lives everywhere, some governments feel excluded and want more control. And let's face it, strong-arm regimes are threatened by popular outcries for political freedom that are empowered by unfettered Internet connectivity. They have formed impressive coalitions, and their efforts have progressed significantly." He also noted the desire to increase governmental revenues through possible and varied fees.

Third, he drove home the fundamental problem: "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 engineering and economic decisions in lightning-fast Internet time. Productivity, rising living standards and the spread of freedom everywhere, but especially in the developing world, would grind to a halt as engineering and business decisions become politically paralyzed within a global regulatory body."

For good measure, in late February, Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt declared his worries. At the Mobile World Congress 2012, as reported by ZDNet UK, "Schmidt said handing over control of things such as naming and DNS to the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would divide the Internet, allowing it to be further broken into pieces regulated in different ways. ‘That would be a disaster... To some, the openness and interoperability is one of the greatest achievements of mankind in our lifetime. Do not give that up easily. You will regret it. You will hate it, because all of a sudden all that freedom, all that flexibility, you'll find it shipped away for one good reason after another,' Schmidt said. ‘I cannot be more emphatic. Be very, very careful about moves which seem logical, but have the effect of balkanising the Internet,' he added, urging everyone to strongly resist the moves."

Entrepreneurs should take note, and be concerned. After all, few technological advancements or tools have expanded opportunity for entrepreneurs, small businesses and their employees more so than the Internet. Any move to international governance and regulation will only serve to reduce those opportunities - and drastically so. The Obama administration needs to make clear that UN regulation of the Internet is not an option, and it should be building an international coalition to protect Internet freedom and opportunity.


Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. His new book is "Chuck" vs. the Business World: Business Tips on TV.