Democratic and Republican government officials warned this morning that a United Nations summit in December will lead to a virtual takeover of the Internet if proposals from China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are adopted.
It was a rare point of bipartisan agreement during an election year: a proposal that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described last year as handing the U.N. "international control of the Internet" must be stopped.
"These are terrible ideas," Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said during a U.S. House of Representatives hearing. They could allow "governments to monitor and restrict content or impose economic costs upon international data flows," added Ambassador Philip Verveer, a deputy assistant secretary of state.
Robert McDowell, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, elaborated by saying proposals foreign governments have pitched to him personally would "use international mandates to charge certain Web destinations on a 'per-click' basis to fund the build-out of broadband infrastructure across the globe."
"Google, iTunes, Facebook, and Netflix are mentioned most often as prime sources of funding," McDowell said. Added Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat whose district includes Facebook's headquarters, many countries "don't share our view of the Internet and how it operates."
What prompted today's hearing -- and a related congressional resolution (PDF) supporting a free and open Internet -- is a Dubai summit that will be convened by the 193 members of the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union, which was chartered in 1865 to oversee international telegraph regulations.
Called the World Conference on International Telecommunications, or WCIT, the summit will review a set of telecommunications regulations established in 1988, when home computers used dial-up modems, the Internet was primarily a university network, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was a mere 4 years old.
That review has created an opening for countries with a weak appreciation of free speech and civil liberties -- with Russia and China in the lead -- to propose the U.N. establish an new "information security" regime or create an alternative to ICANN, the nonprofit organization that has acted as the Internet's de facto governance body since the late 1990s.
Unless the U.S. and its allies can block these proposals, they "just might break the Internet by subjecting it to an international regulatory regime designed for old-fashioned telephone service," Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican said. (U.S. allies include Japan, Canada, Mexico, and many European countries.)
This is hardly the first time that the U.N. or its agencies wanted to expand their influence over the Internet. At a 2004 summit at the U.N.'s headquarters in New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized the current system through which Internet standards are set and domain names are handled, and delegates from Cuba, Ghana, Bolivia and Venezula objected to what they said was too much control of the process by the U.S. government and its allies.
Two years later, at another U.N. summit in Athens, ITU Secretary General Yoshio Utsumi criticized the current ICANN-dominated process, stressing that poorer nations are dissatisfied and are hoping to erode U.S. influence. "No matter what technical experts argue is the best system, no matter what self-serving justifications are made that this is the only possible way to do things, there are no systems or technologies that can eternally claim they are the best," Utsumi said.
In 2008, CNET was the first to report that the ITU was quietly drafting technical standards, proposed by the Chinese government, to define methods of tracing the original source of Internet communications and potentially curbing the ability of users to remain anonymous. A leaked document showed the trace-back mechanism was designed to be used by a government that "tries to identify the source of the negative articles" published by an anonymous author.
December's meeting has alarmed even the Internet's technologists. The Internet Society, which is the umbrella organization for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), sent a representative to today's hearing.
ISOC's Sally Wentworth, senior manager of public policy for the group, warned that the proposals to be considered are not "compatible" with the current open manner in which the Internet is managed.
Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, co-creator of the TCP/IP protocol, and former chairman of ICANN, said the ITU meeting could lead to "top-down control dictated by governments" that could impact free expression, security, and other important issues..
"The open Internet has never been at a higher risk than it is now," Cerf said.