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The Internet has a lot of governance problems, but at least it errs on the side of freedom over government control. We wouldn't want to screw that up, would we? In fact, some people would.
On Thursday the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will hold a hearing on "International Proposals to Regulate the Internet." The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) plans to take Internet regulation up as one of its tasks at its World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) in Dubai this December.
The ITU is an important agency with a fascinating history. It began as the International Telegraph Union in 1865 through an international treaty to standardize telegraphy. Today it is an agency of the United Nations. If you're starting to get worried hearing the words "Internet," "regulation" and "United Nations," I know how you feel. This is, after all, the same UN that just named Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe one of its Leaders For Tourism.
Yes, the ITU isn't usually a particularly political organization, but the fact that it wants to insinuate itself into Internet regulation means it intends to be just that. The governments of both Russia and China have expressed their desire to use the ITU to internationalize regulation of the Internet. For governments like those, the goal can only be to use such regulation to restrict freedom.
ITU control would give the UN some measure of control over cybersecurity, data privacy, technical standards, and the IP addressing system. It would also allow foreign government-owned Internet providers to charge extra for international traffic and allow for more price controls.
The witnesses to the House subcommittee hearing all express concern for international sensitivities, but they all seem dead set against the ITU taking a role in Internet governance. This includes Ambassador Philip Verveer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, plus Vinton Cerf, one of the architects of the Internet.
All witnesses stand up for the current "multi-stakeholder" approach in which a series of non-profit entities such as ICANN and the IEEE have control over standards and operations. These bodies all have procedures that are more open and transparent than the ITU, which only allows participation by governments.
Right now, the only control of the Internet that could be considered centralized is the U.S. Department of Commerce's oversight of the Internet Protocol (IP) and Domain Name Server (DNS) systems. Maybe it bothers you that the U.S. controls these major keys to the Internet, but I think it's a good thing. Without control of these critical facilities, no international group of dictators can really exert much control outside of their own boundaries.
The consensus in the U.S. against ITU control of the Internet is widespread and bipartisan. In that sense, the committee hearing is just a cheerleading session. Still, it's good to have people on record against such threats to freedom.