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21 December 2012

How the United Nations could ruin the Internet

The Internet has sustained some pretty intense assaults in the past couple of years. There was the heavy-handed attempt to stamp out content piracy with SOPA/PIPA, the Federal Communications Commission’s Net neutrality ruling, which many saw as splitting the baby, and that whack job who claimed to own a patent on the World Wide Web.

It is again open season on the Internet in Dubai, where the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency ? whose mandate includes global communications ? is weighing proposals from many of its 193 member nations. Some of these proposals ? such as decentralizing the assignment of website names and eliminating Internet anonymity ? would make enormous changes to the organization and management of the Internet.

The ITU meeting, which began on Monday, runs through Dec. 14. Its agenda, and even the fact the proceedings are taking place at all, set off alarms among the Internet’s guardian angels.

Among the most vocal critics are a founder of the Internet, Vint Cerf, and of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee. Theirs is not some misplaced paternal instinct or senior graybeard moment or cry for attention. These guys are worried. And if they are worried, we all should be.

Still not sure this is serious business? The U.S. House of Representatives, which cannot agree on anything, voted unanimously to ban ITU regulation of the Internet before it even happens. The European Union did that last month, before the ITU even met.

Whether or not any policy directive emerges (or is abided by anyone) is not the point. The danger is in allowing any country to entertain the notion that Internet protocols can be put up for a vote.

It’s not as if the ITU is inherently evil. The U.N. agency’s previous convention, in 1988, focused on voice communications at a time when most phone companies were state-regulated monopolies. It took a global body to break up the cartels and ensure that phone service in every corner of the world adhered to global standards. This ensured that the system could work on the international level.

But the ITU has no inherent power to regulate the Internet. Nothing that makes the Internet work, nothing that has made the Internet great, has been the work of the ITU, which is inserting itself into this debate for the first time.

Today’s scenario is the exact opposite of the phone system dynamic The Internet has flourished exactly because it has always been a global standard, and some now want to regulate it at the state level.

There is an element of East-West, First-Third World envy in the proceedings. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), is a U.S.-based organization that controls the distribution of every Web address in the world.

Russia thinks ICANN’s system can be improved upon. It wants countries to “have equal rights to manage their Internet including in regard to the allotment, assignment and reclamation of Internet numbering, naming addressing and identification resources.”

That is a recipe for the chaos ICANN prevents.

Other proposals have a similarly power-hungry bent. One is a call to individually identify all Internet users — ideal for an autocrat’s retribution streak and surely on the wish list of every regime that sees the Internet as a metaphysical threat.

Politics aside, the most insidious proposal is one that nations can try on their own, and yet the countries are still seeking a U.N. imprimatur. It’s a proposal, championed by some African countries and India, that introduces a new revenue stream by imposing what amounts to a tax on Web publishers.

That scheme would have a chilling effect. As it stands, I pay for broadband — the door-to-door Internet pipe that gets, say, a Netflix video to my screen. Under the proposed scheme, Netflix would be subject to a new fee if the amount of data it streams (because I ask for it) exceeds some carrier-set bandwidth limit. That would be like sending Netflix the bill when you go over your smartphone Internet plan. It would definitely cause Netflix to rethink a few things.

Video consumes much more bandwidth than e-mail, for example, but the core concept of “Net neutrality” holds that all Internet traffic is created equal — and for good reason. If carriers can put up roadblocks, they can keep you from gaining access to Web services, or at least make it extremely painful in the pocketbook. They can force customers to use worse alternatives. They can extort … let’s call them “access fees” … from content creators. It would end the Internet as we know it and slow the development of new services.

The power to tax is not the power to destroy, unless it is. If we had taxed elevators ? higher marginal rates for the highest floors! ? there would be no skyscrapers.

But I am a hopeless optimist. The concerted pushback outside the ITU meeting’s closed doors to anything that might be going on inside will probably be enough to stop anything crazy. And something good may come of all this. The first ITU conference in a quarter century ago is probably the biggest shot that this kind of U.N.-sanctioned, state-sponsored, anti-Internet villainy will have for another quarter century. What’s that they say about what doesn’t kill us making us stronger?


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