(Human Events Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The character of nations that supported these regulatory proposals gives some idea of where they might lead: Russia, China, Iran and most of the world's other repressive states.
The quest by the United Nations to impose international regulations on the Internet hit a roadblock on December 13, when the U.S. government declared its unwillingness to sign on to the current draft. The United Kingdom and Canada joined the United States in voicing their disapproval, which quickly led to other countries, such as India, voicing their grave misgivings. In the end, nearly 90 other countries did sign what has been billed as the first new U.N. telecom treaty of the Internet era.
Thanks to the refusal of the U.S. and other major players to sign it, the treaty lacks "teeth" and imposes no binding legal requirements, but the character of nations supporting these regulatory proposals gives some idea of where they might lead: Russia, China, Iran, and most of the world's other repressive states.
A Russian representative at the recent U.N. conference on Internet regulation made the argument that since individual governments already apply Internet regulations with varying degrees of totalitarian enthusiasm, there might as well be some global standards, because "we can't stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich and say we don't know what the Internet is." But after reviewing the Russian proposals, U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer described them as "shocking."
Opposition to UN. regulation of the Internet was spearheaded by the search engine company Google, which was able to get three million signatures on a petition opposing the measure. Concerns included the danger of special taxes and "tolls" applied to Internet traffic across national borders, and the ever-present menace of governments censoring Internet content. Google noted that "only governments have a voice at the International Telecommunications Union," a series of secretive closed-door meetings at which "engineers, companies, and people that build and use the web have no vote."
The blunt-instrument nature of the ITU and its archaic regulatory structure are illustrated by its 19lh century origins as the International Telegraph Union. One of the points commonly made by advocates of Internet freedom within the United States is that our domestic regulatory instruments tend to be very modest evolutions of laws dating back to the AT&T telephone monopoly days- analog laws unsuited to the digital reality of the Internet. It's an equally powerful argument against the kind of regulations the United Nations has in mind.
A 'network of networks'
We tend to think of the Internet as one massive, smoothly functioning global network, but in fact it's more properly described as a "network of networks"thousands of them, spread across all the nations of the world. Ham-fisted regulations could seriously clog its pipes, with particularly grim consequences for those who rely on the Internet as a means of rallying support against oppressive regimes.
But even under less horrid governments, the freedom of innovation that has made the Internet such an amazing success could be strangled by new layers of regulation. At the moment, there are few tax and regulatory barriers in the path of online start-ups, allowing fairly small companies to reach into global markets at incredibly low cost.
One of the taxes contemplated by the United Nations would allow foreign countries to tax Internet communications originating beyond their borders, in much the same way they currently tax incoming long-distance phone calls.
If it were fully implemented, this could put some international Internet businesses on the hook for staggering tax bills to multiple national governments, virtually overnight.
Critics of the ITU's rapidly swelling body of proposed regulations found themselves asking why the United Nations, and many of its member states, should be in such a hurry to regulate a system that has been such a staggering success.
Virtually everyone agrees that the private companies and voluntary organizations that have been controlling Internet domain registration have been doing an excellent job, so no pressing need to replace them with government bureaucracies is evident.
With so many intractable problems around the globe demanding its attention, why is the U.N. in such a rush to "fix" something that's working
Freedom of expression
Part of the all-too-obvious answer can be seen in the reluctance of regimes calling for content regulation to accept language expressly protecting human rights and the freedom of expression.
A typical American web surfer might be surprised to learn just how thoroughly governments such as communist China have been able to censor and control the seemingly wild and unruly Internet. But, they want even more control, because they fear too much unfiltered information from the outside world is still finding its way to their citizens.
With the failure of the latest U.N. summit on Internet control, these pernicious global legal initiatives are on ice for now, but they're not really "dead." There has been talk of installing some sort of global regulatory regime for years, and it will continue into the future; it's a perennial dr^am of authoritarian governments, while every revenue-hungry capital on Earth buzzes with talk of tapping into the vast wealth of the Internet by levying new taxes.
One other topic discussed at the most recent UN. summit in Dubai were proposals to speed up the expansion of Internet access into the Third World.
That's exactly the kind of thing gigantic bureaucracies love to spend money on, while defending it as a moral crusade to spread enlightenment. It will doubtless be discussed again soon, and it won't be surprising to see the same old tax and regulatory agendas ride into the next U.N. Internet summit on its back.
John Hayward is a reporter for Human Events covering Technology & Freedom. His email address is JHayward@EaglePub.Com.