At first glance, the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) seems benign.
The agency helps coordinate global telephone interconnections so we can make overseas phone calls. It manages radio spectrum and satellite orbits. All tedious and technocratic work.
But the ITU is holding a meeting in December to decide whether it – and by implication, the United Nations – should take over the internet.
This meeting in December will be the culmination of a long contest between the decentralised, private internet and the leaden hand of state control.
A UN takeover of the internet could be incredibly bad. Bad for liberty and free speech online. Bad for technological innovation.
Why would we want to hand the basic structure of the internet to a committee of governments – many of which censor the internet at home?
ITU chief Hamadoun Touré pleaded in the Guardian earlier this year that only his organisation had the “depth of experience” to regulate the online world.
The ITU is an agency in decline. It was founded in 1865 to negotiate connections between national telegraph lines, set technical standards, and manage the fees each network would charge each other. Over time, it gathered more responsibilities, dealing with telephone networks from the end of the 19th century, and broadcast frequencies from the 1930s. When the UN was founded in the 1940s, the ITU was wrapped in the blue flag.
This top-down control over telecommunications had a perverse effect. As a paper in the journal International Organization argued in 1990, the ITU “created one of the most lucrative and technologically significant international cartels in history”. It picked winners and entrenched technological monopolies.
It is the last organisation we would want to govern the dynamic, bottom-up internet.
The political economy of communications has completely changed in recent decades.
During the 20th century, governments dominated telecommunications. Telephone networks were state-owned. Even in the United States, which avoided fashionable state socialism, telephone companies were legally-backed monopolies.
The ITU thrived in this environment. When governments controlled the telephone system, negotiating a connection between two national networks was more an issue of diplomacy than private commercial contracts.
Then along came neoliberalism. Public utilities were privatised. Monopolies were exposed to competition. The need for a diplomatic body to manage the planet’s spidering communications infrastructure dissipated.
It’s been a quarter of a century since the ITU’s mandate was renewed. As such, the ITU has no authority over the internet. Network companies have developed diverse interconnection contracts with each other, and have done so independently. Technical standards have developed voluntarily and organically and in response to market demand.
Above all, the internet is largely decentralised. It is a product of civil society, not government. And what few centralised functions the internet does have – for instance, the management of domain names and IP addresses – are managed by non-government organisations based in the United States.
(This is not without problems. The Bush administration intervened to stop the introduction of the .xxx domain, an own goal which undermined American claims of neutrality. But for the most part, the internet still governs itself.)
The advantage of decentralised self-governance means internet architecture is mostly out of the reach of traditional politics and statecraft.
That’s what the ITU power grab is all about.
The ITU doesn’t want control over the internet’s foundations merely to deal with technical issues like interconnection and standards. No, ITU wants policy control: to have a hand in regulating cybercrime, child pornography, even spam. It wants to pursue social goals. Hamadoun Touré talks about creating “a fully inclusive information society” – a phrase which would be easy to dismiss as meaningless if it didn’t reveal an extraordinary mission creep.
Some countries want the UN to control what network operators charge each other. Other countries even want to tax internet telephony firms like Skype to protect the revenue of their old national telephone monopolies.
It gets worse from there. A coalition Russia, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan want the UN to regulate online speech by curbing:
The dissemination of information that incites terrorism, secessionism or extremism or that undermines other countries’ political, economic and social stability.
Of course, their idea of what information undermines “stability” may differ from ours.
Will that authoritarian coalition get its way? Probably not. But the absurdity of this last proposal simply demonstrates the risk of UN control. Under the ITU, the internet will be a geopolitical plaything.
It’s hard enough protecting online freedoms from the national security excesses of liberal democracies.
Imagine vesting the power to tinker with the basic structure of the internet with as discreditable a political body as the United Nations.