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.