Why U.N. Control Over the Internet Is a Bad Idea

Why U.N. Control Over the Internet Is a Bad Idea

U.S. lawmakers are advocating against greater U.N. Internet control, insisting such measures would hamper freedom of speech and hurt online businesses.

In a rare bipartisan agreement, legislators warned the Obama administration against voting to increase U.N. power at the World Conference on International Telecommunication this December. WCIT attendees, comprising representatives from 193 countries, will debate whether the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union, or ITU, should expand its online influence.

Doing so would give worldwide governments increased power over their countries’ Internet affairs, a switch from the existing system in which U.S.-based non-profits set international regulatory standards. Currently, U.S. NGOs like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, strive to maintain a balance between governments and the private sector.

Eclipsing ICANN in favor of the U.N.’s ITU may “slow the pace of innovation, hamper global economic development and potentially lead to an era of unprecedented control over what people can say and do online,” according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philip Verveer.

“Centralized control would threaten the ability of the world’s citizens to freely connect and express themselves by placing decision-making power in the hands of global leaders some of whom inevitably will have ambiguous attitudes about the value of free speech,” he said.

But China, Russia, India, Brazil and a host of other countries disagree with Verveer’s view.

They say the U.S.-based ICANN plays far too prominent a role in setting worldwide Internet standards and accuse the U.S. of opposing increased ITU power because it would diminish existing American influence.

China and Saudi Arabia, for example, desire strict control over citizens’ Internet use, suggesting they value freedom of speech less than privacy and security. But ICANN’s values are Western in nature, prompting both countries to question its influence over their networks.

In any case, the U.N. will likely never support regimes like Hosnai Mubarak’s that seek to darken the Internet, since it views Internet access as a human right. But lawmakers’ efforts hint there is growing concern over how to best manage this increasingly indispensable human right.

Meanwhile, as politics continue over the WCIT conference, online businesses are paying close attention.

Robert McDowell, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, predicted U.N. Internet control will enable “international mandates to charge certain Web destinations on a ‘per-click’ basis to fund the build-out of broadband infrastructure across the globe.”

“Google, iTunes, Facebook, and Netflix are mentioned most often as prime sources of funding,” he continued. Whether these taxes will materialize is debatable, but if so, Internet companies will likely oppose such heavy international tariffs on their services.

As the debate continues between U.N. supporters and detractors, companies and citizens will watch closely as countries debate the online world’s fate. If the U.N. increases its Internet control, businesses and people may find their online access curbed or liberated depending on their country of origin.

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