The United Nations is not taking over the Internet. At least -- not yet. But that's the fear many have as talks take place in Dubia this week as the UN's Telecommunication Union and delegates from around the world meet to decide whether it should have oversight or regulate the Internet. That has some big alarm bells ringing.
The United States along with private companies such as Google and Microsoft fear centralized control over the Internet by the UN and governments could be used as justification to impose more restrictions, monitoring, or surveillance of the Web. They fear as a result of this conference, which last through next week, that fundamental underpinnings of the Internet could be changed. This, they say, could lead to more nation by nation control of the Web and an erosion of the Internet as a decentralized global open network.
The head of the UN's International Telecommunications Union, Hamadoun Toure, said any assertion that the UN was attempting to take control of the Internet was "completely untrue." Instead Toure said only "light-touch" regulations were being sought.
To help navigate this important and complicated topic I offer a breakdown of the major bullet points of the United Nations International Telecommunications Union Conference.
What is the International Telecommunication Union?
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the branch of the United Nations (UN) responsible for information and communication technologies. The ITU was established in 1865, and is composed of 192 United Nations member states and the Vatican City. The ITU currently focuses on three sectors -- radio communication, standardization, and development. It does not -- at least, not yet -- set standards or regulations for the Internet.
What is the World Conference on International Telecommunications?
The 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT-12, is basically a two-week long ITU summit in Dubai. This particular conference, which began December 3 and ends December 14, is considered "landmark" because it's the first time that the ITU will review and update the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) that govern connectivity. The ITRs haven't been updated since 1988, which was back when the Internet wasn't really a thing, and so the ITU will be hearing proposals from different countries on how (or if) the ITRs should be updated to include this newfangled communications system.
What is Congress voting for/against?
Both the U.S. Senate and the House voted unanimously for a resolution introduced by Sens. Clair McCaskill (D-Montana) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) that calls for the U.S. government to oppose a UN "takeover" of the Internet. This vote is meant to signal to the countries currently gathering at the WCIT-12 that the United States is not on board with any proposals that might involve allowing the UN to regulate the Internet.
What do you mean, "takeover"?
One of the United States' main concerns is a proposal by some nations that involves instituting a " sender-pays" regime that would force online service providers to pay more to deliver their content to the world's consumers, according to Ars Technica. This "sender-pays" regime would be similar to regulations that the ITU created in the 1980s for telephone service, but it doesn't make sense for the Internet .
Telephone calls are, for the most part, the responsibility of the caller. If you call someone in another country, your phone company charges you an exorbitant fee, but the other person doesn't have to pay anything to receive that call. This is because your phone company is paying the other person's phone company a nominal fee for them to accept the call. However, if you call someone locally, then your phone company is both sending and accepting the call, so you don't pay as much.
The Internet is set up differently. When you send something on the Internet, both parties pay. You/your company pays to send the data, and the other person/their company pays to receive that data. When similarly-sized networks exchange data, virtually no money is exchanged between the two companies -- the sender's company does not pay the receiver's company, which is what would happen in a phone situation. This is called peering, and because networks choose to peer only with similarly-sized, balanced companies, one network isn't overburdened by incoming data.
So, some countries propose that the United Nations "takeover" the Internet by instituting a regulation regime, similar to the regime it created for telephone service back in the 80's.
Why do other countries want this, and why does the United States not want this?
The United States houses many of the world's prominent Internet companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Because these companies are content providers, such a regulation regime would force the United States to pay more money to other countries in order to get content across the world.
It's not just about the money (but it mostly is), however. As GlobalVoices points out, this type of regulation could restrict content flow to developing countries, threaten Net Neutrality, and could provide a less-than-beneficial environment for users, since ISPs would be forced to create two-tier services (and if they already have a great service...they'd have to come up with a better one...or a worse one).
What are the United States' other concerns?
The United States, and private companies within the U.S. , is not just concerned about this potential regulation scheme. It's also concerned about proposals that might restrict online privacy, freedom, and expression. Although the ITU allows its member states to restrict free speech, some authoritarian states want to further legitimize Internet censorship and government surveillance.
For example, a proposal from Russia wants to give member states equal rights to manage the Internet, including the "allotment, assignment, and allocation of names numbers," Ellery Biddle, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology, told GlobalPost. This means that Russia wants to take control of web domain names away from ICANN, which is located in, and protected by the free speech laws of, the United States.
Because other governments, such as those of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and now Syria, heavily censor their citizens' Internet usage, placing them in control of domain names could be problematic. For example, they could simply refuse anti-government groups the right to purchase domain names.
The European Parliament is also concerned about control of the Internet falling into the ITU's hands, and voted on a resolution calling all European Union member states to prevent changes to the ITRs that might harm the openness of the Internet. Unlike the United States, the European Union's 27 states are still considered countries, and so could negotiate as a bloc.
How does this affect you?
Well...not a whole lot, at least not yet.
Once the new treaty is drafted, things will only start to change if most of the countries sign it into national law. And if big Internet players, such as the United States, do not ratify the treaty then, well, it's possible that not a whole lot will change.
As Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of the ITU, said in a speech back in June, "I do not see how WCIT could set barriers to the free flow of information."