A World Government For The Internet? Not So Fast

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On Monday, representatives from 193 governments kicked off an 11-day meeting in Dubai to discuss, among other things, possibly moving oversight of the Internet's basic mechanisms to the International Telecommunications Union. Many people are not happy about that.

Google has taken the exceptional step of using its home page to invite people to sign a petition against the ITU's move. The Obama administration opposes it and so does the Republican Party. And just about every U.S. observer of tech policy also wants the ITU to pull back (as I heard quite a few opine at a gabfest in Washington last week).

What's the deal?

Part of the problem is what might come out of the ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications, and part of the problem is how the ITU has conducted this exercise.

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The idea behind WCIT (pronounced "wicket") is to modernize a 1988 treaty governing how telecommunications networks cross national boundaries. The ITU has tackled that kind of standards-setting work since 1865 largely because somebody needs to: Wireless spectrum and wired lines are finite goods in need of some coordination.

But with WCIT, the ITU's menu reaches beyond the physical infrastructure of telecom.

Some countries have submitted far-reaching proposals to shift control of the Internet's domain-name addressing system from its current owner, a non-profit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Russia, for example, proposes that ITU members "shall have equal rights to manage the Internet."

Complaints over ICANN's U.S.-centric background have been a popular pastime for several years running, and ICANN hasn't done its image any favors by authoring such boondoggles as a needless expansion of top-level domains that would let companies register their own brand names as "TLDs."

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But ICANN looks good compared to the prospect of countries with Russia's history of media interference getting a say in Internet governance outside their borders. That may not rank as a U.N. takeover of the Net, but it's definitely not an upgrade.

A group of European network operators, meanwhile, would push websites to pay Internet providers for the cost of the bandwidth consumed by their users. You may have heard big-name U.S. telecom firms try to sell that idea during the height of the net-neutrality debate a few years ago; it remains a dangerous idea that would wreck the economics of popular sites like Netflix.

It also defies business logic. Companies like Netflix and their customers already pay separately for their bandwidth.

The ITU's leadership says not to worry and that it will adopt a "light touch" if it votes in any new rules. But the closed manner in which it's staged this round of negotiations does not invite confidence.

Many of the details noted here are only public because of the efforts of WCITLeaks, a clearinghouse set up by Internet scholars Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado to publish documents shared by participants. And the ITU's process reserves voting for governments, even though much of the Internet's architecture has involved leadership from universities and companies.

If the ITU could point to a pressing problem with the Internet that it could solve, it might have a case for taking a larger role. But a new multilateral treaty won't slow pervasive online ailments like spam and malware, nor will it help country-specific problems like a lack of choice for broadband access.

The ITU has, however, provided a good reminder to anybody who's forgotten last year's SOPA fight: The Internet is not so well established that we can count on it taking care of itself.

Credit: ITU's Flickr page