The U.N. Internet Takeover

The U.N. Internet Takeover
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For the past two decades, the Internet has been governed by the people who use it. In a bottom-up process remarkably free of political interference, the system brings together businesses, engineers, research institutions, civil society groups, and governments to make decisions by consensus.

It may be hard to believe, but this “multi-stakeholder model,” as it’s called, actually works, with real transparency and accountability. Rooted in the principles of seamless cross-border networks and freedom of expression, the Internet has been adopted faster than any other means of communication in history.

Now, however, the Internet’s good-governance model faces a serious threat. Today and tomorrow, the United Nations General Assembly is holding a conclave that will consider new ways to govern the Internet, and authoritarian countries are pushing to give governments a bigger stake in decision-making.

It’s easy to see why. Regimes like those in Russia, China, and Iran are themselves under serious threat, with their own Internet users criticizing government and uncovering corruption. What they want is a U.N.-style model, where every country has a vote, and those votes will boost the power of the governments casting them. One result could be a balkanized Internet where threatening speech, or commercial competition, is squelched at the border.

Up until recently, the United States has been a fervent supporter of the multi-stakeholder process. But last year, the Obama administration announced it would give up its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which manages Net addresses.

The final, or Top Level Domain designation, at the end of an address, can be fraught with political and economic implications. For instance, France wants the use of “.wine” or “.vin” limited to users who agree to abide by strict geographic rules for wine labeling. Only growers in the Champagne region of France would be able use an address that includes the word “champagne.”

The U.S. has acted as a guarantor of the multi-stakeholder process that runs ICANN. But now ICANN is up for grabs. It could end up being not just a manager of addresses but the main governing institution for the entire Internet.

Technically, this week’s U.N. meeting is a review of the World Summit on the Information Society, launched 10 years ago. In a process that began in June, governments, NGOs, and other groups have been filing papers to guide the creation of a single U.N. “outcome document.”

Consider the filing by the Group of 77 plus China -- a coalition, dating from 1964, of developing countries that now includes 134 nations. “The management of the Internet involves both technical and public-policy issues,” says the document, “and … the overall authority for Internet related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States.”

The group pays lip service to the multi-stakeholder model but emphasizes that it “should not be lopsided, and any tendency to place sole emphasis on the role of businesses and non-governmental organizations while marginalizing governments should be avoided. … It is necessary to ensure that the United Nations plays a facilitating role in setting up international public policies pertaining to the Internet.”

Russia’s filing is even worse: “We consider it necessary [the document’s italics] to consecutively increase the role of governments in the Internet governance, with strengthening the activity of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in this field, as well as with support of the UNESCO activity in the development of ethical aspects of Internet use.”

The ITU is a U.N. agency that’s another candidate for Internet-czar status; UNESCO was long ago politicized. The term “ethical” is a red flag. It provides an internationally sanctioned foothold for countries that want a U.N. imprimatur on their restrictions of free speech.

While the U.S. and Europe are trying to uphold the status quo, they are vastly outnumbered. In past meetings of this sort, the U.S. has managed to keep the authoritarians at bay, but the administration’s ICANN decision -- another case of attempting to lead from behind -- won’t help. ICANN is a tempting prize for China and other countries.

The good news is that the final document looks reasonable. While “it does not emphasize sufficiently that the Internet is a shared, global platform,” Kathryn Brown, president of the Internet Society, writes in a blog, “it does, however, strongly recommend states … ‘avoid’ actions that would disrupt the benefits of the Internet.”

The governance section reaffirms that “existing arrangements have worked effectively to make the Internet the highly robust, dynamic and geographically diverse medium that it is today, with innovation and value creation at the edges.” Except for a few phrases like “full involvement of governments,” the document gives little weight to the changes the authoritarians are seeking.

But that could change. The real problem is that with WSIS+10, the United Nations has gained official acceptance as the arbiter of Internet governance. As of this week, the multi-stakeholder model survives, but the conference itself amplifies the danger of a takeover by forces that see a free Internet as an existential threat.

James K. Glassman served as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in 2008-09.

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