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It’s rare that ordinary internet users need to care about what goes on at the United Nations, but this is definitely one of those times, if only because the UN’s telecom arm is currently holding hearings in Dubai that could change the way the global network functions in some important ways. Although fears of what some have described as a UN “takeover” of the internet are over-blown, some of the proposals the telecom committee will be considering could have ramifications for the way we use the internet, and perhaps more importantly how we pay for it. They are serious enough that Net veterans like Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet,” are warning of the dangers if these proposals are actually adopted.
As we described in a post earlier this year, the controversy stems from a meeting of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union or ITU — a body that is made up of representatives from all the countries that belong to the United Nations. The core mandate of the group, as its name implies, is to get national governments and regulators to agree on rules that govern the way telecommunications networks operate between different jurisdictions. Now, the ITU wants to extend its oversight to the internet, and it is asking members to vote on new rules that would govern the global computer network.
“Our protocols were designed to make the networks of the Internet non-proprietary and interoperable. They avoided ‘lock-in,’ and allowed for contributions from many sources. This openness is why the Internet creates so much value today. Because it is borderless and belongs to everyone, it has brought unprecedented freedoms to billions of people worldwide.” — Vint Cerf
One of the things that makes this issue so difficult to pin down — which in turn has caused a lot of fear-mongering and hyperbole about the outcome — is that the ITU doesn’t make its meetings public, nor does it release much specific information about the proposals that are going to be considered by the group during its meetings over the next couple of weeks. As a result, most of the information we have comes from leaked documents and second-hand or third-hand reports about the discussions. The internet’s current governing body, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has been accused of being secretive in the past, but it is an open book compared to the ITU.
As a number of sources have pointed out, there are a wide range of proposals from dozens of different countries who belong to the UN, and most of them will never see the light of day or become international law. But the proposals that should be of concern to users — and have drawn criticism from Vint Cerf, now a Google evangelist, as well as a multi-party group of U.S. legislators and other agencies — fall into two large buckets:
Limits to free speech and the free flow of information
One of the reasons to be afraid of what the ITU might do is that some UN member states — including Russia, Turkey, Iran and others — would like the power to restrict speech and information, and their proposals to the UN body are aimed at making it easier for them to do that. Obviously, China and other countries have shown that they are capable of creating national-level firewalls and systems that can monitor and block whatever forms of communication they wish, so the ITU’s approval isn’t necessary for this to happen.
If regulations were changed, however, the fear is that it could become even easier for countries like Egypt or Syria to filter and block specific online content, rather than having to use brute force to shut off the internet altogether — something that is much more obvious than a secretive filtering or controlled-access scheme, and therefore easier to criticize or defend against.
“Governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting of The International Telecommunication Union that opens on December 3 in Dubai to further their repressive agendas. Accustomed to media control, these governments fear losing it to the open internet.” — Vint Cerf
Changing who pays for the internet, and when
The second major reason to be concerned about the ITU’s plans is less philosophical and more technical: since one of the core functions of the group is to set policy around how telecommunication networks connect to each other — and the terms on which those connections occur — many of the proposals before the committee involve extending the same kind of approach to the internet. If you’ve ever experienced the nightmare of international roaming charges for a cellphone (which one estimate says can be more expensive than getting information from Mars), you probably have a sense of why this could be a bad thing.
As my colleague Stacey Higginbotham explained recently, the internet is in many ways a loose collective of national and trans-national networks — all of which connect to each other and share information based on what are called “peering” arrangements. These relationships are based on mutual advantage, and therefore they don’t usually involve money changing hands. In a very real sense, the internet is the first peer-to-peer network, and that has had a tangible impact on everything from telecom competition to the startup ecosystem, since it keeps the costs of cloud computing low.
The threat that the ITU poses is that a number of member states want to move to a system called “sender pays,” which is more like how telecom networks operate. The main reason they want to do this is that it would mean a significant new source of revenue for some countries — countries that believe they are currently helping to subsidize the growth of the internet for others, without getting much from it themselves. As a recent report from the OECD argues, making this change could derail many of the benefits that the global economy gets from the internet.
Among other things, this could jeopardize the principle of “net neutrality,” which is designed to ensure that data flows without consideration for who produced it or how much they paid a specific network to carry their bits. As MIT’s Technology Review has pointed out, the Internet Society — a non-profit co-founded by Cerf — has called the proposal an attempt to continue the “scams and arbitrage” that plague the traditional communications model, and says that the model the ITU is considering runs the “serious risk of fragmenting the internet.”
Whether the UN body accepts any of the recommendations or proposals that have been submitted to it remains to be seen, but unfortunately — given the secrecy with which the negotiations are being conducted — we may not know the answer until it is too late.