Commentary Magazine


The UN’s Internet Grab

Leo Tolstoy once said, “Imagine Genghis Khan with a telephone.” Imagine Genghis Khan, or a gaggle of Genghis Khans, running the Internet, and you have a sense of the ideas that will be percolating in Dubai at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in December. 

Delegates from 120 countries will gather under the auspices of the United Nations to consider a plan to take administrative control of the Internet away from the United States and hand it over to an international body run by the UN. 

In short, governance of cyberspace will pass from the country that has kept it free and accessible since its creation—the United States—to the same organization that gave us the financial scandals at UNESCO, voted to designate Zionism as racism, and seated China, Syria, and Muammur Qaddafi’s Libya on its Commission on Human Rights. 

“The Internet stands at a crossroads,” is how Vint Cerf, one of the Web’s founders, put it in a May New York Times opinion piece. What happens in Dubai, he wrote, could “take away the Internet as you and I have known it.” Those who share his concern cross the ideological divide. Rebecca MacKinnon, of the liberal New America Foundation, and former Bush administration officials, such as Ambassador David Gross, similarly see Dubai as a defining moment, especially because the driving forces behind the meeting’s agenda are Russia and China. Those two nations have established themselves as the world’s worst cybercrime offenders and most systematic suppressers of political dissent on the Internet.

Whoever controls the Internet controls the destiny of nations. Ultimately, how Internet governance gets settled in Dubai and afterward could well determine whether freedom or totalitarianism gains the upper hand in the 21st century. 

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This all began in 2005, when the United Nations sponsored a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. That choice of venue was itself rich with irony, since Tunisia’s then dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was the Arab world’s leading censor of the Internet, and the two sponsors of the summit’s trade fair were China’s biggest network companies, Huawei and ZTE. They are the anchors of China’s Great Firewall that keeps out Western ideas and suppresses dissent—and also leaves it free to hack into the secrets of Western governments and corporations more or less at will. 

That is precisely the kind of Internet many other countries would like to have, and China emerged from the Tunis meeting as their chief spokesman. Several belong to the so-called G-77 of developing countries, which includes Pakistan, the Philippines, Brazil, and Argentina, as well as Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. They believe that the administration of the World Wide Web by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in Los Angeles, isn’t responsive enough to the needs of developing countries, and so they pushed through a paragraph in the Tunis final report that “underlines the need to maximize the participation of developing countries in decisions regarding Internet governance, which should reflect their interests, as well as in development and capacity building”—in other words, in helping governments control what their citizens can see, and can’t see, on the Internet. 

The best way to do that, China proposed in the run-up to the Tunis meeting, was to take administrative control of the Internet away from ICANN and hand it over to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The Union is a branch of the United Nations in which all countries have an equal vote, whether their delegates know anything about the Internet or not. (Most of the calls made by ICANN are done by engineers who have a background in cyber issues, and who are also—inevitably—trained and educated in the West). 

A clear agenda was taking shape, with Chinese help. Free and open access to the Internet was being defined as a “Western” or “Eurocentric” priority that should not be imposed on “developing countries” by a Western institution such as ICANN. Accepting censorship as a governing principle was being defined as showing sensitivity to the needs of the developing world—with a UN-based body as the perfect vehicle for doing it. 

Some human-rights groups disagreed. “If we have no freedom of speech,” said one WSIS delegate, a dissident from Zimbabwe, “we can’t talk about who is stealing our food.” But what began in Tunis reached a crescendo in September 2011 in Nairobi, where 2,000 delegates from 100 countries met for an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) under UN auspices. There, Russia rallied around the idea of passing control over to the ITU as well. According to President Vladimir Putin, the goal of the IGF should be “establishing international control over the Internet,” meaning that national governments, not users, would have the final say in the “norms and rules…concerning information and cyberspace.” Not only China, but also Iran, India, Brazil, and South Africa have signed on to the International Telecommunication Union plan. 

Nor is the ITU’s current secretary general, Hamadoun Touré, opposed. He graduated from the Technical Institute of Leningrad and Moscow Tech in the Soviet era, and he knows the case against free speech only too well. But he also knows how to couch the case for Internet takeover in terms acceptable to Western liberals.

One term is democracy. As Touré told Vanity Fair, “When an invention becomes used by billions across the world, it no longer remains the sole property of one nation”—meaning the United States. “There should be a mechanism where many countries have an opportunity to have a say. I think that’s democratic. Do you think that’s democratic?” 

Another buzzword is security. Everyone worries about proliferation of cybercrime and unauthorized hacking. Just before the Nairobi meeting commenced, Russia and China, backed by Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, called for creating an International Code of Conduct for Information Security, ostensibly aimed at curtailing cybercrimes such as hacking and terrorism. One of the code’s provisions would be committing signatories to “curbing the dissemination of information which incites terrorism, secessionism, extremism or undermines other countries’ political, economic, and social stability.” 

The goal, in short, will be to force the United States, Canada, and Europe to shut down dissident websites or sites that provide any information another government deems extreme or antisocial. Most Arab countries at the Dubai meeting will go along with this goal, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, when they learned what can happen if citizens have even limited access to the Web and social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. 

Another key appeal is on multiculturalist grounds. ICANN’s business is largely conducted in English, and until recently the domain names it generated used the Latin alphabet (now they’re available in Arabic, Chinese, and a host of other languages and characters). Critics such as the Internet Governance Project have long argued that the organization has a pro-Western, even pro-American bias. The group even states on its website that “the United States government holds unilateral control of critical Internet resources,” meaning ICANN, “against the will of users and governments in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”

One could argue, on the other hand, that this alleged tilt toward Western values is something many dissidents in China and Iran might desperately want to increase—just as they probably have a clearer notion of who’s being held against his will, or who’s not, than the IGP does. Still, the diversity argument has many sincere proponents, and the fact is, the United States and Western countries are a major source of the information that authoritarian regimes and others in the developing world find objectionable (as witness the tremendous furor recently over the Innocence of Muslims video). 

But handing control over such content to the UN is where even a liberal critic like Rebecca MacKinnon has to draw the line. Former CNN correspondent, author of Consent of the Networked, and an enthusiast for “democratizing” the Internet, MacKinnon is no fan of ICANN or what she sees as the preponderant role corporate sponsors play in its decisions. Still, she recognizes how China has cleverly used the cultural-bias argument to push for replacing the current “multi-stake holder” model of cyberspace—in which governments have no more say than do engineers, activist groups, and the technology companies who own its biggest servers—with one in which governments will dominate. And many of those governments, she notes, don’t have the consent of their own citizens. 

“The UN system’s chronic inability to protect and uphold human rights around the world,” she writes, “and its propensity to empower and legitimize dictators within the global governance system—as well as the lack of technical understanding of how the Internet really works among many countries’ ministers of communications—are good reasons that power over the Internet’s critical resources should be kept out of intergovernmental hands,” and in the hands of ICANN. 

In fact, contrary to the multicultural critics, one could argue the key to the success of the Internet lies precisely in its original, American, even capitalist, bias. 

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The widely circulated story that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep vital computer communications open in the event of a nuclear strike is a myth. The original network built by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the late 1960s had nothing to do with nukes—it was to ease communication among universities doing defense-related research—and was funded, not built, by the government. Nearly all the technology involved, including the first computer hardware and phone lines, was installed by private companies such as Honeywell and AT&T—and when ARPA’s director, Robert Taylor, moved to Xerox, that company developed the first Ethernet to connect different private computer networks. 

Indeed, the explosive growth of what had been a government research project has been steadily fueled by U.S. corporations such as CompuServe, universities, and individual engineers such as Stanford’s Vint Cerf, the inventor of the TCP/IP address system, as well as Britain’s Tim Berners-Lee, who in 1990 developed the hyperlink system he dubbed the World Wide Web. The Internet is the one clear, simple, and efficient communications network that everyone depends on, regardless of national origin or ideological orientation. That’s why most American companies who do business on the Internet support the work of open-standards organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and World Wide Web Consortium, as well as ICANN. All three are nonprofit voluntary organizations that answer to no government and state in their charters that they serve the interests of Web users. 

By the time ICANN was created in 1998, the Internet had spread from the United States to more than 100 countries. Today it includes some 2 billion users, sharing millions of bytes of data and information every second. Everyone recognizes that it is a truly global institution with no government master. But it also retains its fundamental American character, as a never-ending cascade of what Cerf calls “permissionless innovation.” Users from all over the world are constantly adding to and extending its performance, not to mention its range of services and commodities and new ideas. It is “not merely a radiance of connections; it is a mesh of constant invention,” writes George Gilder in his book Telecosm. “The Internet is yet another demonstration of the triumph of intelligence over time and chaos”—and of the profoundly American principle that freedom is superior to constraint and control. 

International bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force are important to keeping the Web strong, efficient, and open, but ICANN is crucial. Its job is to oversee the assignment of the unique identifiers essential for the TCP/IP address system. By making sure every computer server or network has a unique Information Protocol address, ICANN is able to ensure that any user gets access to data emanating from that specific address and no other—and can do so from anywhere he or she enters that address on a Web browser, whether it’s to look at a website, download data, send an email, or buy something. 

It also makes sure that the number of available domain names and addresses keeps up with the expansion of the Internet—which is one of the issues that has already led to some friction with governments, including that of the United States.* Indeed, if ICANN has any “bias” at all, it is in expanding the Internet and making it more available to users, no matter who or where they are, according to certain rules of the road called the Internet Technical Regulations, set down in an international conference in Melbourne back in 1988. 

With ICANN as umpire, the Internet has become the closest thing to a globalized free market the world has ever seen, where individuals anywhere are able to use a basic and neutral set of rules to match their preferences—including buying and selling goods and services. Like any free market, the Internet is subject to abuse and prey to predators, both governmental and nongovernmental. But as the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Robert McDowell, notes, thanks to ICANN, the Internet has become “the greatest deregulatory success story of all time.”

Others, of course, view that deregulatory narrative not as a success story but as a threat—especially the authoritarian governments who would much prefer having an Internet they can directly police. (Iran, for example, has announced plans to create its own “clean” or halal Internet, which will serve individuals and institutions inside Iran in accordance with Sharia law and remain entirely cut off from the World Wide Web.) But they see replacing ICANN outright with a UN agency subject to their control as politically unfeasible—and also too much work. So they’re looking at a different route. Instead of firing the umpire, they want to seize the rulebook by which he operates. And the place they intend to do that is Dubai. 

_____________ 

After the December conference, “the governments of the world will have more power over the Internet than ever before,” warns David Gross, who coordinated the State Department’s communications policy under George W. Bush. What Gross expects is the creation of a new framework under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union—in which nation-states will make the important calls on changing the rules of the road, the International Telecommunication Regulations. These are “the most important and sensitive aspects” of how the Internet is organized, or rather, how it runs itself. 

One of those changes would be taking dominion over ICANN’s assignment of identities for the origin and destination of Internet traffic. This could allow governments to force ICANN to erase domains or IP addresses they don’t like, thereby cutting them permanently from the Internet and dumping them down the cybersphere’s memory hole. 

Another would be inserting the Chinese- and Russian-sponsored International Code of Conduct for Information Security into the Internet’s rules, which would force its international custodians, including ICANN, to cooperate with governments that want to censor what flows into their country.

The third would radically alter who pays for using the Internet. The Dubai conference will weigh proposals that invoke the principle of “sender party pays,” making content providers such as Google and Yahoo! purchase the right to transmit content to users. “It’s a completely new economic concept to the Internet,” says Gross, “and it could have a radical and profound impact on the economics of the Internet, especially in the developing world.” 

The example he likes to use is a poor student in a village in Thailand or Nigeria who wants to download a page from a website he found on Google. As the Internet currently works, he gets the information for free: The only cost is paying for the Internet connection in the host country. “But if Google had to pay someone for the right to send that information,” Gross says, that person might decide not to send it at all. “The eyeballs of a rural person in Thailand to an advertiser aren’t probably worth the trouble.” The result would be to shut down or severely limit access to the Internet in the world’s poorest places—something that several governments might not find so objectionable. 

Nor would its effects be limited to places like Thailand and Nigeria. Gross anticipates that “sender party pays” would lead to a multitiered World Wide Web, with different data provided to different users based on their levels of income and on advertising rates. That’s not just a crimp to commerce; it spells an end of Internet democracy. 

Gross’s fears, like Rebecca MacKinnon’s, are rooted in the Internet’s possible future. But there’s another older story being played out in Dubai, one familiar even to people who still haven’t decided whether the Internet is a good thing for the culture or not. 

Given that Russia and China are prime movers in the bid to wrest Internet oversight from the United States; that their allies include Iran, Syria, and Venezuela; and that ITU’s Touré was trained and taught by Soviet apparatchiks, it’s hard to resist the feeling we’re watching a replay of the North–South debates of the 1970s, when totalitarians used the issue of the inequality of nations to push their real agenda of undermining the power of the United States and the West—not because they were barriers to prosperity, democracy, and free expression, but because they were their chief exponents. 

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote then: “Our policymakers have yet to learn just how dangerous the world [has] become for a nation like ours, or to see that guarding the language of human rights would play no small part in our defense.” Substitute “Internet” for “language of human rights,” and one has a very clear statement of what’s at stake in the Internet-governance debate. 

It’s not at all clear that the officials who will handle the Dubai issue for the Obama administration understand this. A memo issued by the State Department on January 23, 2012, after the Nairobi meeting dismissed the idea that a takeover of the Internet was in the offing. “There are no pending proposals to invest the ITU with ICANN-like government authority,” it states—ignoring the fact that the real issue in Dubai will not be whether the UN agency replaces ICANN but whether member governments can use the UN to hijack the Internet agenda and reduce ICANN to a mere administrator of their collective will. 

The same memo insists that the Obama administration must continue to support open access to the Internet and stresses that its efforts to push further “liberalization of international telecommunications networks” would be completely successful at Dubai. But it’s not likely that an administration whose response to Muslim outrage over an allegedly derogatory video on YouTube was to seize and detain its producer is going to be a strong advocate for free speech—or for keeping the Internet free from nation-state control.

The Internet has proven that creativity and innovation flourish best when governments govern least. The United States has a solemn duty to protect the legacy it founded. In that sense, he who controls the Internet does control the destiny of nations—and ultimately the destiny of freedom.

About the Author

Arthur Herman is the author of, most recently, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His article “How America Got Rich” appeared in the September issue. 





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