Does the UN threaten Internet freedom?

Yesterday's opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by FCC commissioner Robert M. McDowell furiously criticized the United Nations for trying to seize control of the Internet. His inflammatory language pointed the finger at imagined enemies of a free and open Internet. But this looks like a transparent attempt to stop the international community from its rightful control over a critical international resource, as we'll see in The Long View...

Opinion, by Richi Jennings.

All the old bogeymen are here: China, Russia, and top-down, big government. The supposed aims of these Internet enemies also make familiar reading: Governmental control of thought-crime, privacy infringement, and Internet taxes.

Russia, China and their allies within the 193 member states of the ITU want to...expand its reach into previously unregulated areas. Reading even a partial list of proposals that could be codified into international chilling.

He then goes on to list a foaming-at-the-mouth grab-bag of unsubstantiated "fears", but buried within is the one thing he's really concerned about. He says the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) wants to:

Establish for the first time ITU dominion over important functions of...the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit entity that coordinates the .com and .org Web addresses of the world.

Yes, Robert, in case you've not noticed, the rest of the world is utterly fed up with the U.S.'s continued control over the Internet domain name system, via its ICANN puppet. Is it really so hard for the U.S. to cede control of this crucial international function to an international body with international oversight? It's, frankly, ridiculous that, 20 years after Al Gore's committee freed the Internet from its non-commercial straitjacket, we're still shackled with U.S. control over this key function. Here are just three examples of why the rest of the world wants this problem finally fixed:

  1. The U.S. government can and does unilaterally seize domains that have no connection with America. There's little or no legal process, and no jurisdiction, but that doesn't stopped an unabashed Department of Homeland Security from doing it.
  2. For a non-profit organization, ICANN makes surprising efforts to earn money. Notably, the .xxx domain that nobody wants, and solves no problem; not to mention the crazy arbitrary-gTLD goldrush.
  3. ICANN has also failed to free up more than 300 million unused IP addresses, leaving regional registries to run out of IPv4 allocations, and forcing people to implement IPv6 before it's mature enough. Jon Postel must be turning in his grave.

Yes, all right-thinking countries should be wary of signing international treaties that sanction oppression and unnecessary regulation. On the other hand, those of us who live outside the U.S. continue to be concerned that we're relying on a not-so-benevolent dictatorship. Nation states can already censor the Internet, and they can already spy on their citizens. No new set of ITU regulations would change that. I wonder if Mr. McDowell, a U.S. government employee, sees the irony in complaining about censorship and spying, when it's his employer that's among the most prolific Internet censors and wire-tappers? McDowell points to the renegotiation of the 24-year-old International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) as the nexus of this imagined threat. Back in 1988, ITU member countries agreed a set of common rules to form a level playing field for international telecomms. 24 years on, and the world is a very different place. The rules need updating to fit the new reality, not to mention the fact that several of the signatories no longer exist, such as the USSR and the EEC. Not that the U.S. was truly a signatory to the 1988 ITRs, anyway. Although it ratified the treaty, it added a last-minute note to the final protocol, saying:

The [U.S.] reserves the right to take whatever acts it deems necessary, at any time, to protect its interests.

Translation: who cares what the resolutions say, we'll ignore them if it suits us. La-la-la-la, we're not listening.

Yes, it's an international Internet.
We need to move authority away from the U.S. for non-geographic domains (.com, .org, etc.) Frankly, adding some adult supervision to ICANN would also be a good thing.

What do you think? Comment below...

Richi Jennings, blogger at large

Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. As well as The Long View, he's also the creator and main author of Computerworld's IT Blogwatch, for which he has won ASBPE and Neal awards on behalf of IDG Enterprise. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, Encircle richij on Google Plus, or just use good old email: You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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