Christian Huitema's blog

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Nothing good for the Internet can come from the UN

18 Dec 2010

Here we go again. The UN is restarting a committee to study changes in Internet Governance. This is not new. The UN had been running an Internet Governance Forum for some time. The old forum achieved little more than publishing a few studies, after organizing a worldwide tour of conferences. Clearly, some governments are frustrated by the lack of progress, and want to restart the process. We should all be worried, because nothing good can come out of that.

Each time I look at this process, I can only find three motives: ensuring worldwide censorship, taxing international connections, and providing cushy positions for international bureaucrats.

In telecommunications, the main trove of cushy positions for international bureaucrats lies in the ITU. Because the ITU is a treaty organization, nations can lobby and get nice jobs for preferred cousins or well-connected politicians. Thirty years ago, when the Internet started to develop, the ITU dominated the world of telecommunication standards. Today, the ITU still play an important role in allocating radio frequencies, but for Internet standards it is mostly a side show. The real work is happening in voluntary organizations like the W3C, the IETF and the IEEE. Lack of relevance combined with budget pressure threatens a number of bureaucrats’ jobs. They are thus natural allies to any effort to move the “governance” of the Internet to the UN, to which the ITU is attached.

In the old days of telephony, the ITU was regulating the tariffs of international phone calls. Not a big deal in theory, because the settlements only apply to the difference. If there were more calls from Country A to Country B than the other way around, Country A pays for the difference at the specified tariff. For most countries, that would be a wash. But many developing countries kept their local tariff very high, so there were many more emigrants calling their families from Europe or the US than the other way around. These telephone tariffs became essentially a tax on emigrants, and a significant source of revenues for many developing countries. With the Internet, this source of revenue disappears. Peering fees are based on business negotiations, and more or less reflect the cost of providing the service. We understand why many African nations would like to “change Internet Governance”, so they could go back to taxing communications.

If it were only for bureaucrat jobs and taxes, the problem would be rather easy to solve. International bureaucrats appear content to go to lots of meetings worldwide even if there is no practical result, and I suppose the UN could continue paying them to do that. Developing countries already receive lots of grants for development aid, and some of that could probably be earmarked to finance “Internet development.” The main problem is really censorship.

Authoritarian regimes around the world have a hard time accepting the freedom of communication that goes with the Internet. In the name of “social harmony,” the Chinese Communist Party has implemented firewall and regulation to ensure that Chinese people don’t access content critical of the regime. In the name of religion, the Saudi Kingdom has implemented its own firewall to ensure that the kingdom’s subjects don’t read something pernicious. These are two prominent examples, but there are many more. Outside of the Western world, censorship is the rule, not the exception. But local censorship, implemented in a single nation, is costly and not very efficient.

I can’t help thinking that the true goal of “Internet Governance” is “Internet Censorship.” Instead of blocking content in their own country only, authoritarian regimes dream of blocking it worldwide. There are examples of that already. The Chinese government on occasion protests when the press in Europe, the US or Japan publishes views that the regime dislikes. The Saudis have campaigned at the UN to establish “anti-blasphemy” regulation that would prevent anyone from criticizing their views on religion. There are many more examples. And what better way to implement that than Internet Governance by the UN?

This is why I just signed ISOC's petition to not let the UN grant an Internet Management Monopoly to governments.