Will the United Nations Soon Govern the Internet?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012, by Virginia Wooten

 On December 2, 2012, the International Telecommunications Union (“ITU”) will hold the World Conference on International Telecommunications (“WCIT”) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  The ITU currently serves as the United Nations’s specialized agency on information and telecommunications, and the ITU regulates networks and technologies to ensure they connect on an international level.   At the conference, the ITU will review the current regulations that comprise the global treaty on the interconnection of information and communication services.  This upcoming review of current regulations is important, as the ITU will decide whether to bring the Internet within its jurisdiction.  Currently, the international telecommunications regulations do not extend to the Internet, but the potential for change has entities coming out in support and opposition to ITU Internet governance.

Congress points out “the structure of Internet governance has profound implications for competition and trade, democratization, free expression, and access to information.”

On one side, some European countries, along with the United States, have expressed their opposition to such regulation.  For example, this past summer the U.S. Congress passed a resolution emphasizing that an Internet free from government control is essential for the global economy.  Congress points out “the structure of Internet governance has profound implications for competition and trade, democratization, free expression, and access to information.”  Because of the importance of the Internet to the economy, academia, human rights, and free expression, among other areas, the United States has taken a strong stance against allowing additional government control of the Internet. 

Furthermore, companies like Google are also speaking out against this possible switch to national Internet governance.  On its website, Google states that “[a] free and open world depends on a free and open Internet,” and that forty-two countries currently engage in censorship.   Even more, the secretive treaty only allows governments to votes.  This means that various companies, non-profits, and other organizations will not play a role in deciding this issue. 

Activist groups are also getting in on the issue and posting warnings about the ITU control of the Internet and the upcoming decisions at the World Conference.  The website wcitleaks.org has posted leaked copies of documents prepared for the WCIT by various countries, including the U.S., Russia, and Arab States.   The Russian proposals have tended to ask for power to be removed from organizations to the UN, where national governments will have greater control.   If adopted, the Russian proposals could provide for UN-approved government censorship under the premise of protecting national security.

This also comes at a time when Google is recording a spike in government online surveillance.  Google noted that governments requested removal of material for reasons of “defamation, privacy, and security.”  Although there are national interests in monitoring the Internet, such as national security, allowing these governments more control could lead to a severe decline in the freedom and ability of individuals to use the Internet.  Because the Internet does play such a vital role in the global economy and international communication, the decisions made this winter could significantly impact Internet accessibility for businesses and people across the world.