FCC commissioner: don't let the Internet fall into the UN's hands

FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell has a WSJ op-ed condemning a treaty proposed at the International Telecommunications Union, the UN agency that oversees global phone systems, which would transfer much of Internet governance to the UN.

Commissioner McDowell correctly asserts that transferring governance to the ITU would be bad for Internet freedom. There are few UN specialized agencies that are more ossified and more prone to being gamed by the world's totalitarian regimes than the ITU. One UN acquaintance of mine memorably referred to the ITU as the place "where superannuated telco bureaucrats go to die." And let's not forget the vital role that ITU designates filled in creating surveillance and censorship regimes established by the failing governments of Tunisia and Egypt (and the similar role they're likely playing in other regional nations in the midst of popular uprisings).

But it's pretty rich for someone from the Obama administration US government to go around talking about how the Internet is in danger from political interference from special interests. This is the administration that gave us SOPA and the TPP, that argues that ACTA can be put into law without an act of Congress, and that has made a habit of extrajudicially seizing .com and .net domains on the sloppy say-so of its political donors from the entertainment industry.

I agree with Commissioner McDowell that the Internet needs to be free of political interference. I agree that this won't happen at the ITU.

But that's where we part ways. McDowell describes a present-day Internet where wise American stewards neutrally steer the net's course. I see a world where political hacks and appointees from the lobbyist/regulator revolving-door are ready to destroy the Internet to maximize profits for one or another industry, and where an amok defense industry is ready to destroy whatever is left after Big Content gets through with its dirty work.

The Internet does need stewards, and the Obama administration has spectacularly demonstrated that it is unfit to carry out that stewardship.

Merely saying "no" to any changes to the current structure of Internet governance is likely to be a losing proposition. A more successful strategy would be for proponents of Internet freedom and prosperity within every nation to encourage a dialogue among all interested parties, including governments and the ITU, to broaden the multi-stakeholder umbrella with the goal of reaching consensus to address reasonable concerns. As part of this conversation, we should underscore the tremendous benefits that the Internet has yielded for the developing world through the multi-stakeholder model.

Upending this model with a new regulatory treaty is likely to partition the Internet as some countries would inevitably choose to opt out. A balkanized Internet would be devastating to global free trade and national sovereignty. It would impair Internet growth most severely in the developing world but also globally as technologists are forced to seek bureaucratic permission to innovate and invest. This would also undermine the proliferation of new cross-border technologies, such as cloud computing.

The U.N. Threat to Internet Freedom (via Reddit)



  1. Who are you going to designate in our stead? Australia? Already has laws than SOPA. Canada. A PC joke. GB. No constitution. France? Give me a break. Germany? Maybe. Netherlands? Maybe. But neither of those countries or any of the others will ever confront anyone over censorship or rule breaking. Better to have control here in a government that can be voted in-or-out as we choose fit.

      1. It carries enough weight to make Ciszewski’s argument legitimate. The subject is whether or not to farm it out.

    1. So GB, France, Germany, The Netherlands don’t have a government that can be voted in-or-out? Have a good look at a recent US election then – remember the GWBush reelection debacle? Last time I checked real democracys dont torture or kill their citizens, don’t have rampant police brutality and secret trials. The usual tiring self-aggrandizment and “we’re the beacons of freedom” tripe of Usians is quite ironic  for a non-Us audience when looking at post 9/11 USA.

    2. Please inform me how I can vote your government out, because I’d love to do just that.

      Cory is entirely correct that the US government has demonstrated it cannot be trusted with the control of the internet. International institutions do work. Sure, the international criminal court can’t force the US to have its war criminals tried, and similarly, no international body will be able to prevent censorship in countries that really want censorship. But it will be able to provide a standard of freedom, and it will be able to prevent one country from forcing its censorship on others, like the US is trying to do.

      If the ITU is such a mess, why not disband it? Create a new body that does it right. Put someone like Neelie Kroes in charge to steer it in the right direction.

      1. “Please inform me how I can vote your government out, because I’d love to do just that.”

        Please inform me how you can vote China’s government out first. The US is far from perfect, but there is no better one for guiding the development and deployment of the Internet at the moment. 

        1. To be honest, a European bureaucracy, subject to the European Parliament and the ECJ, etc would be much preferable in my opinion.

          Regulatory capture is a much more prevalent problem in the US than in the EU.

    3. See I’m German. I can’t vote the US government in our out. The US is also scarily close to electing Rick Santorum to be commander in chief (I know chances are slim, but say he beats Mitt Romney and the economy worsens and Obama is hit by a major scandal…). So the fact that the US citizens can vote in our out the the US government is hardly reassuring.

      1.  I can see Santorum winning the nomination, but it would take an incredible string of weird events for him to win the election. Romney would have much better odds. But at least as the MA governor Romney behaved reasonably.

        Given that, who should the democrats hope the republicans nominate, I wonder?

  2. Dear America: I would HAPPILY be an imperialist bastard…if you weren’t totally sold out to a bunch of shady corporate powers.  How about– here is a crazy idea– representing the interests of your citizens, instead of the nascent aristocracy you’ve allowed to grow in the plutocratic scrum of robber barony?  Yeah?  I’d be all for that cyber empire.

  3.  Last I checked Australians, Canadians, the British, French, and Germany can’t vote in US elections.

    Maybe having a non-US centric view of the Internet would help first?

  4. Sunil, the problem is we can’t vote for Administration cabinet appointments. This beside the fact that the revolving lobbyregulator structure we now have shuts out all but the most powerful.
    Interesting times – Cory you’re helping me maintain the faith, thank you!

  5. When one of these thugs eats your cake, you don’t just entrust it with the skinniest kid at Fat Camp. You need to think bigger. None of these governments (or orgs like the UN) can be trusted. Not. One.

    What needs to be done is peer to peer DNS. It’s my understanding, in the wake of the US domain seizures, SOPA and other fun stuff, work on these things has been progressing.

    1.  Put the Internet in the hands of its users… That’d be, for the least, an interesting experience one the the Money powers will fight teeth and nails.

    2. This issue is not just abot net infrastructure, its about policy.

      The policies that must be modified and enacted to create a better internet for everybody has to be a bureaucracy, no way around it. Its just a question of what kind.

  6. ITU would be even worse than the US – though that’s just damning with faint praise. They regularly have closed door policy meetings, are even more open to content control than the US is, and held Europe back for decades because as the CCITT (later ITU-T) they backed big corporate backed standards like X.25 (IBM & AT&T).  Most of the documents the ITU produce are encrypted, and peons like us can’t have the password.

    On the plus side at least it wouldn’t be pushing just American political/spying agendas, but I certainly don’t think they would be more content friendly or less corporate influenced.


  7. Repeal the 17th Amendment.  Treaties like this would have no chance whatsoever of being ratified if states had a voice in Congress.

  8. There’s plenty of blame to go around without lying about it.  The US may be responsible for the SOPA proposal.  The administration is not.

    All that aside, I have trouble seeing how the UN could be worse than the US to hold the symbolic control of the Internet.  It would at least help to separate the physical control, in the form of threatening arrest of corporate executives who don’t fall in line, from the formal or nominal control.  Since the UN has no arrest powers over the operators of Internet infrastructure, this seems like a good opportunity.

    1.  >The US may be responsible for the SOPA proposal.  The administration is not.

      Could someone explain this for me, please? I don’t understand.

      1. Members of both parties campaigned actively for SOPA.  But the Obama administration campaigned actively against it, citing National Security, technical, and economic concerns, and even saying it would not achieve anything useful.  Eventually, after many Internet companies got more directly involved, SOPA failed.

      2. Not all new legislation originates from the white house (“administration” refers to the executive branch specifically)- any senator or congressman can propose a bill.

        As it happens, SOPA failed in the House. It was proposed by a congressman. It never got to the president’s desk. The administration’s official position was that it didn’t support the bill.

  9. Go ahead. Destroy the Internet. Burn it to the ground, so we can get on with the business of creating its replacement. I’ve always been jealous of the technological pioneers who were born 10 years earlier; soon it will be my turn.

  10. I appreciate that we hear little about net neutrality these days. I think some people are slowly (and silently) coming to the conclusion that net neutrality (as it is customarily described) is either unnecessary, unworkable or would play right into the hands of those trying to control the internet. I know you’re not all there yet but you have to admit there has been little discussion of it as of late.

    I’m reminded of a decade ago when people were screaming about how we HAD to ratify Kyoto (perhaps some of you felt that way). Fast forward and Kyoto has been revealed as a failure and even Canada has denounced it. Now there is little discussion of it or any proposed successor treaty. It takes awhile for people to realize some alleged solutions are useless or even worse than the concern they seek to address.

    There is a campaign underway to establish legal principles and social acceptance that internet activity does not merit robust freedom and privacy. Whether this is a concerted effort or merely a convergence of factors is indeterminable. I completely agree with Cory Doctorow that the government cannot be trusted with stewardship.

    The current threats against internet freedom and privacy face a united front. Liberals and conservatives hate SOPA and ACTA. These are actual and imminent threats which deserve a loud “NO.”

    I don’t think the war be won simply by saying “no” in a piecemeal fashion. We need to confront the attempts to control the internet as if they are part of an orchestrated effort even when they come from many different directions (eg fighting perverts and terrorists; fighting copyright infringement).

    There are serious questions about how the law deals with modern technology. So far, the ‘novelty’ of new technology has allowed the government to successfully overwhelm emerging notions of privacy, just as they tried to do with the telephone and thermal imaging technology. In both cases we had to wait for the Supreme Court to put firm limits in place – the requirement of a warrant for tapping a public phone booth was quite a breakthrough!

    Do we sit around and hope the Court does the right thing again (and granted I’m only speaking about Americans at this point)? The case of United States v. Jones, decided a couple weeks ago holds some hope that the Court will protect our rights. See, particularly, Sotomayor’s concurrence. Even Scalia’s majority opinion wasn’t a total bust. See the following article for a good review of the opinions:


    1. I’m just flabbergasted that you take the US’s intransigence regarding doing ANYTHING about climate change as proof of failings in the Kyoto treaty.  That’s like saying if a rapist avoids the police, then we shouldn’t have anti-rape laws. 

  11. The internet has a steward. It is the Internet Society 

    What we could try is getting international agreement to give the Internet Society the same status as ITU or the Red Cross. That is, an international organization (internetsociety.int) instead of an American one.

    Not at all easy. And the risk is that it would also become a home for superannuated bureaucrats, unless we found a different way of running it. Like using the internet for example.

  12. Control of the Internet should remain where it started: in the hands of the people who built it.   (That does not mean corporations, by the way.)   The wisest, most succinct policy statement I’ve ever seen originates there: “We reject:  kings, presidents and voting.  We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”  (David Clark, former chief protocol architect)

    That viewpoint is anathema to governments, who consider any policy document under 500 pages to be inadequate, and to corporate droids, who can’t understand one unless it’s full of hidden meanings, “gotcha” clauses, exemptions, and self-promoting drivel.  But it WORKS.  It’s why you have an Internet.

    It’s still working today.  The people who are still building the Internet, still developing new protocols, are using it.  They argue, a lot.  Sometimes things take a long time to get done; sometimes they happen pretty quickly.  Sometimes things that seemed like a good idea aren’t.  But steady forward progress has taken place for decades.

    The IETF et.al. aren’t perfect. But (a) they’re the smartest people in the room (b) they fight with each other too adamantly to be susceptible to groupthink (c) they have a healthy distrust  of governments (d) they’re resistant to regulatory capture and (e) they have no unified political agenda.   (This is a sharp contrast with ICANN, which is corrupt to the bone and exists solely to enrich registrars at the expense of everyone else.)

    (Update: apparently some piece of software at Disqus is trying very hard to turn any string that might be a URL into a link, as in the example above. This is very, very stupid: it’s an enormous security risk. Not only should this function be disabled, it should be stripped out of the code and the programmer(s) responsible given remedial training in the fundamentals of security.)

    1. apparently some piece of software at Disqus is trying very hard to turn any string that might be a URL into a link

      Yup. It did that because you put a period in between two letters with no spaces. See how.it works?

  13. I strongly object to opinion that ITU would be worse than something US-based. ITU has long history of being competent and transparent. It’s probably the only UN agency worth of funding. Most recommendations are available for download: http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-T/publications/Pages/recs.aspx . Thanks to them, the telecommunication system supports even oldest terminals (something that cannot be said about “the Internet”), just because vendors actually adhere to standards.

    1. ITU is responsible for the nightmare of X.500, which is reason enough to never let them get their hands on anything else.

      If you ever wondered why verisign and the other CAs get to swindle everyone who wants to accept credit cards over the Internet, you can blame ITU.

      Edit: I understand my country is scary and untrustworthy, and I’m not trying to say the USA is the best choice for Internet governance – I’m just saying we’re better than the ITU, that’s all.

      1. Using X.509 to HTTPS was IIRC Netscape’s error. And I still beg to differ: USA is probably worse choice than some UN or EU agency. The best reason is resistance from US govt few years ago when somebody proposed moving ICANN to Geneva.

        You know, the illusion of some democracy and representativeness for the whole world is better that thinking “we are good, so what’s the problem”. The problem is, there is no difference in democracy or dictatorship in US of A, since we (Europeans) can’t vote on your government.

        In principle you are posing as dictator to the whole world, and that’s unacceptable.

        1. The problem is you need an actual functional, competent agency to do the job, and you haven’t named one yet.  The ITU, which is even less democratic and representative than the US, is not going to fly.  They just aren’t capable of doing it, and wishful thinking won’t make it so.

          1. The ITU already works as a functional standards body *right now*.  Just saying that they’re not capable is juat plainly ridiculous given that they currently do *exactly that*.

            At any rate, the proposal was that the UN take over the role, not the ITU.  The UN (as a whole)  is functional and competent.

    2. I used to work in Telecommunications and given the ease that we (New Zealand based company) could work with ITU technologies rather than the walled-garden rubbish produced in the US, we could never understand how US writers were so convinced of the superiority of their own systems.  It seems to be universal that everyone in the US is an expert who knows that the ITU sucks, yet outside of the US, the view seemed to be exactly the opposite.

      Go figure.

  14. I agree that the Obama administration is awful on internet freedom, and that american interests are hellbent on making fundamental changes to the internet that I would hate to see- but I think that americans might be in a better position to protect the internet from ourselves than anyone else is.  Look at the fate of SOPA, then look at ACTA: it’s a lot easier for americans to fight our congressmen than our diplomats.  If america transferred stewardship, I’m afraid the first thing it would do is start leaning on those stewards, and there would be very little voters could do about it.  American people have a lot more control over congress (and considering how little control that actually is- it’s frightening) than they do over the american diplomatic core.

  15. To be fair, McDowell may be an Obama appointee, but he was appointed to fill one of the Republican FCC commissioner slots. Odds are that his views and the Obama Administrations aren’t exactly aligned, although perhaps more so than I’d like to believe.

  16. I’m sorry, is this the same FCC that never let the citizens broadcast, but instead gave the entire broadcast spectrum to corporations? Is this the same FCC that sat on low power AM and FM and then wrecked them as vehicles for public use? Is this the same FCC that thinks sex is bad, but violence is ok? Is this the same FCC that censors our language and fines us?

    Hey, I’m sorry, but if the FCC is against it, my first reaction is to be for it. There are few government agencies as completely screwed up as the FCC, and that’s really saying something sad.

    The Internet is (currently) based on old US ideas of free speech, but our government in general and the FCC in specific have been working to cripple those ideas for some time. I don’t like the idea that an overly-politically correct bunch will force us into “respecting” bogus things like religion, but I tell you what, I fully expect to see just that from the US government before much longer… the US government, MY government, is wholly out of control.

    1. Imagine the horror of anyone outside the US, who has even less say than you in what will happen to the internet.

  17. I can’t imagine the UN would be better than the US.  Probably much worse. I’d rather have no government involved.  But especially not an unelected group of bureaucrats.

  18. The UN couldn’t find its arse with two hands and a mirror. Giving them control of the internet is like handing the keys to my car to a three year old – then wondering why the car is wrecked.

    UN? No way, no how.

    1. You’re right, nothing attatched to the UN can achieve anything, and that’s why I’ve died of smallpox.

  19. The main issue with the Internet right now is that USA claims dominion over all non-national TLDs. So if i set up a .com site running on free software on top of servers physically located outside of USA, they still claim the right to shut me down if i am breaking US law. And potentially even extradite me for trial in a US court. Now if .com was be aliased to .com.us it would make sense. But it is not.

  20. If you want to see some more explanation of why giving governments the central role in Internet policy is a bad idea, see http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/shadow-wars-debating-cyber-disarmament

Comments are closed.