The Internet could someday look very different and be less open and free if a proposal for the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations, to take over management of the Internet comes to pass, critics of the proposal say.
A growing movement led by China, Russia and some Arab states to hand more control of the Web to the United Nations has U.S. lawmakers and Internet companies warning of censorship, surveillance and taxes.
The ITU and its 193 member states will meet in Dubai in December to reconsider a key 1988 communications treaty, with a number of foreign governments arguing it needs to be updated as the influence of Internet communications increases worldwide.
Advocates of a free and open Internet say that could create an opening for countries where free speech and civil liberties are often harshly suppressed to propose the United Nations establish a new "information security" regime to replace ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit U.S. organization serving as the Internet's de facto governing body since the late 1990s.
Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell has warned that some ITU member countries seek to hobble the open and free nature of the Internet because it causes problems for dictatorships and autocracies.
"[L]et's face it. Strong-arm regimes are threatened by popular outcries for political freedom that are empowered by unfettered Internet connectivity. They have formed impressive coalitions, and their efforts have progressed significantly," he wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
A bipartisan group of U.S. congressional officials said they would resist any change in the way the Internet is regulated and maintained.
Members of the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee have issued a resolution urging the U.S. government to maintain "the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet today."
Committee member Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said U.N.-led control of the Internet would affect Internet users around the world.
"The Internet has become this economic and social juggernaut not because governmental actors willed it to be so, but because the government took a step back and let the private sector drive its evolution," he said. "International regulatory intrusion into the Internet would have disastrous results not just for the United States, but for people around the world."
Vinton Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist and former chairman of ICANN, addressing the congressional committee, said the ITU meeting could lead to "top-down control dictated by governments" that could impact free expression.
"Such proposals raise the prospect of policies that enable government controls but greatly diminish the 'permissionless innovation' that underlies extraordinary Internet-based economic growth, to say nothing of trampling human rights," he said.
"If all of us do not pay attention to what is going on, users worldwide will be at risk of losing the open and free Internet that has brought so much to so many."
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