[NA-Discuss] Foreign Policy and the Internet

Glenn McKnight mcknight.glenn at gmail.com
Fri Aug 10 02:37:29 UTC 2012


Foreign Policy: The UN Takes On The Internet

[image: Terry Kramer, U.S. ambassador to the World Conference on
International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT), speaks on August 1 at the
Information Technology Council in Washington, D.C.]
Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Terry Kramer, U.S. ambassador to the World Conference on International
Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT), speaks on August 1 at the Information
Technology Council in Washington, D.C.
text size A<http://www.npr.org/2012/08/09/158482024/foreign-policy-the-un-takes-on-the-internet>
August 9, 2012

*Rebecca MacKinnon is a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America
Foundation, a former CNN bureau chief in Tokyo and Beijing, co-founder of
the citizen media network Global Voices, and author of *Consent of the
Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom*.*

On Aug. 2, the U.S. House of
 a resolution <http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hconres127> urging
the White House to stop an obscure U.N. agency from asserting greater
control over the Internet. It is the "consistent and unequivocal policy of
the United States," the lawmakers
"to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and
advance the successful multistakeholder model that governs the Internet

President Barack Obama's administration sometimes finds itself at odds with
members of Congress who oppose nearly everything the United Nations does on
principle. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
"black helicopter" conspiracy theorists harming the national interest after
they blocked U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty for the second

When it comes to the Internet, however, Congress, the White
, technology companies<http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2012/08/google-applauds-bipartisan-resolution.html>,
and civil liberties
all on the same page: All agree that the United Nations — a body
representing the interests of governments — should not be given control
over a globally interconnected network that transcends the geography of
nation-states. The Internet is too valuable to be managed by governments
alone. Yet there is less agreement over how well the alternative
"multistakeholder" model of Internet governance is working — or whether it
is really serving all of us as well as it might.

The immediate threat to the Internet as we know it is the World Conference
on International Telecommunications
(WCIT)<http://www.itu.int/en/wcit-12/Pages/default.aspx> scheduled
for December in Dubai by the International Telecommunication
Union<http://www.itu.int/en/Pages/default.aspx> (ITU),
a U.N. body whose remit has thus far been limited to global telephone
systems. Members meet behind closed doors. Their policy proposals were
until recently accessible only to members — until activists forced
transparency upon them through a website called
The leaked documents reveal how a number of governments — in league with
some old-school telecommunications companies seeking to regain revenues
lost to the Internet — are proposing to rewrite global international
telecommunications regulations <http://www.itu.int/ITU-T/itr/> in ways that
opponents believe will corrode, if not destroy, the open and free nature of
the Internet. (For readers wanting to delve into details, a number of
nonprofit organizations including the Center for Democracy and
Technology<https://www.cdt.org/issue/itu> and
the Internet Society <http://www.internetsociety.org/wcit/> have published
analyses of the leaked documents and other recent ITU statements.)

A number of countries, including Russia and China, have put forward
proposals to regulate aspects of the Internet like "crime" and "security"
that are currently unregulated at the global level due to lack of
international consensus over what those terms actually mean or over how to
balance enforcement with the protection of citizens' rights. Other
proposals focus on changes to who handles technical coordination and the
setting of standards that enable all the devices, networks, and software
across the Internet to communicate and connect with one another. Most of
those technical coordination functions are currently handled by a
constellation of institutions whose doors are open to all groups with a
"stake" in the Internet's future: engineers, activists, unaffiliated
individuals, and corporate and government representatives.

These institutions are not exactly household names. Only a tiny fraction of
the billion-plus people on the planet who increasingly depend on the
Internet have ever heard of the U.S.-based nonprofit Internet Corporation
for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) <http://icann.org/>, which
coordinates the global domain-name system, the collection of regional
Internet registries<http://www.nro.net/about-the-nro/regional-internet-registries>
coordinate IP addresses, or the Internet Engineering Task
Force<http://www.ietf.org/> (IETF),
which develops global technical standards so that devices and software all
around the world can interoperate with one another — let alone any of the
other organizations that coordinate Internet-related resources and

This governance ecosystem has worked astonishingly well in managing the
Internet's exponential growth, largely because the system is so open and
decentralized that any person anywhere on Earth with engineering or
software-programming skills can invent new software applications, devices,
and other networked technologies that can all interconnect with one another
without needing to obtain permission or buy a license from anybody.

Some other ITU proposals would shift some of these organizations' roles to
the ITU itself, which — because it primarily serves the interests of U.N.
member states and excludes other stakeholders in its decision-making
processes — will reflect a bias toward centralization, bureaucracy,
predictability, and control. This would inevitably corrode if not destroy
the Internet's openness and permission-free qualities that have made the
Internet such a powerful platform for innovation and empowerment.

This is by no means, however, the first attempt by powerful governments to
assert power through the ITU. China, Russia, and many developing countries
have complained for nearly two decades that the new, nongovernmental
multistakeholder institutions are dominated by Americans and Western
Europeans who manipulate outcomes to serve their own commercial and
geopolitical advantage. These critiques converge with the interests of
former and current state-owned phone companies wanting to restore revenues
of yore before email and Skype wiped out the need for most international
phone calls. "There is still a continual theme that the glories of the past
in terms of the telco monopolies of decades ago can somehow be
reconstructed within the landscape of the Internet," writes Geoff
chief scientist at the Asia Pacific Network Information Center. Doing so
might also raise government revenues in some places, and thus a number of
developing-country governments have lined up behind Russia, China, and
other authoritarian regimes in support of empowering the ITU.

To continue reading this article, visit

Glenn McKnight
mcknight.glenn at gmail.com
skype  gmcknight
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