U.N. Seeks to Centralize Power over the Web, Threaten Internet Freedom

This week, talks for updating the treaty on Internet governance will begin in Geneva. This treaty could result in the granting of numerous new powers over the Internet to the United Nations. The push to finalize the treaty by year’s end comes from a number of countries, including Russia, China, and many Arab states. Their aim to give the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) more power is based on a desire to impose international controls and regulations onto the Net, threatening technological innovation, free speech, and the free flow of information.

A number of the proposals for these new powers have already been revealed. Perhaps most concerning for free speech and the open flow of information are a set of proposals that would allow a country to throttle, reroute, inspect, and even restrict Internet traffic at their border. Unsurprisingly, this is being proposed by a group of nations that recently flipped their “Internet kill switches” in response to civilian uprising. Similar proposals would place issues of cybersecurity and data privacy under international purview. Another would allow the ITU to regulate international mobile roaming prices and practices.

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell stated in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that “A balkanized Internet would be devastating to global free trade and national sovereignty. It would impair Internet growth most severely in the developing world but also globally as technologists are forced to seek bureaucratic permission to innovate and invest.” He notes that it is the multi-stakeholder approach to governance that the Internet employs that has made it such a success. As countries such as India and Brazil move to secure greater political freedom in their own countries, calls for international governance over the Internet will turn them in the opposite direction by discouraging free speech and technological modernization.

Centralization of the Internet goes against its very nature. The Internet has grown in a relatively free market, away from the heavy hand of the government. Much of this is due to the current governance structure, housed in independent non-profit organizations, like the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Engineering Task Force, which are largely disconnected from nations around the globe. The new proposals being drawn up for ITU’s treaty will fractionalize the Internet, diminishing free speech, lessening efficiency, deterring technological innovation, and potentially raise prices. The Internet has become a booming success by remaining borderless and independent. It is imperative that these proposals are stopped, ensuring that the free market remains unimpeded by new international regulations.