For some weeks now I have been seeing an article from the Wall Street Journal popping up practically everywhere in my collective social media timeline, from Twitter to Google Reader, from Facebook to mailing lists, there is growing concern that the Internet is about to suffer such an attack that will make SOPA and PIPA look like a Nativity play.
In the article, Robert McDowell, Commissioner for the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), tells us that:
“On Feb. 27, a diplomatic process will begin in Geneva that could result in a new treaty giving the United Nations unprecedented powers over the Internet. Dozens of countries, including Russia and China, are pushing hard to reach this goal by year’s end. As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last June, his goal and that of his allies is to establish “international control over the Internet” through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a treaty-based organization under U.N. auspices.”
Scary stuff! Russia and China acting together cannot be good. And worst of all, this has the Vladimir Putin Seal of Approval! How will this dastardly plan take place? Here is where the article stops making sense, and departs into speculation. It gives us a date for when this impending doom will commence, but there is not a single link to any official document indicating how the doomsday will occur. As far as I could investigate, February 27 was the first meeting of the Council Working Group preparing the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) to be held in Dubai, so one has to assume that this is what was meant.
Not all of the preparatory documents for the WCIT-12 are online at the time of writing, so it is not possible to know if there is a widespread undercover plan to destroy the Internet as we know it. Given McDowell’s strident but unverified claims, this seems unlikely. There simply is not enough political will to harmonise cybersecurity and Internet privacy for example, and the idea of carriers will be allowed to charge extra for international Web traffic seems like one of those silly scam emails that warn that governments are about to start taxing email, or that Facebook will start charging customers. And even if the UN managed to get a treaty ordering the US to relinquish control of ICANN, there is nothing that would compel them to comply.
Since the article came out, I have been scouring the Internet for more clues as to the veracity of McDowell’s claims, and I keep coming short. There is a BoingBoing article which seems to be the main source for most of the reports that keep getting to my Inbox through various sources. While Doctorow is critical of the hypocrisy displayed by the FCC, he seems to take him at his word about the threat. The two articles that have tried to dig deeper are one at Extreme Tech, and one at The Register. In the first, the author points out that a US government memo cited by the Internet Governance Project seems to deny that there will be major changes taking place at the Dubai conference. In fact, the memo claims that “There are no pending proposals to invest the ITU with ICANN-like Internet governance authority.” The article in The Register is even more adamant, as it says:
“The ITU has said, time and time again, that it has no interest in running the internet. Earlier this month the organisation’s secretary general pointed out that even if he had a mandate (which he doesn’t) he hasn’t the budget. ITU budgets are always linked to policy objectives, and taking over the internet is not a policy objective.”
So why all the FUD? The first clue is in who exactly is uttering the warning, and where. The US government is currently in control of the Internet through the Department of Commerce’s control of ICANN. While it is true that ICANN has implemented a very open multi-stakeholder structure, they still have a large portion of control. When the FCC commissioner talks about a threat to Internet freedom, what he is actually saying is that there is a threat to their freedom of the Internet. In other words, the US is concerned about any move that would transfer power from ICANN to the United Nations, particularly the ITU and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The fears appear exaggerated, to say the least. Mr McDowell would seem to be issuing a pre-emptive strike against any sort of plan that would affect their dominant position. I happen to think that Internet governance through ICANN is the lesser evil, but anyone who believes that the Internet is currently in the hands of “wise American stewards who neutrally steer the net’s course” is sorely misinformed.
I call FUD until I see some evidence.
ETA: Thanks to Dixie Hawtin for pointing out the existence of a report from the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT0, which has the first reputable report on possible content of (WCIT-12). While it is an interesting read, there is still nothing that indicates the possible ITU push towards extending its control of the Internet. The report contains an affirmation favouring the multi-stakeholder model, and a repeat of some of Putin’s statements, as well as a September 2011 commitment on cybersecurity from China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Still no smoking gun.