No, The UN Is Not Trying to Control Your Internet

Ed note. The 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications kicks off this week in Dubai. As expected the headlines are blaring alarmingly about a supposed UN plot to control, takeover, or somehow mess with the Internet in a nefarious way. I first wrote the following post in June to explain what this “controversy” was all about and why the UN will not be taking over your Internet anytime soon. Now that the conference is underway, I thought it would be worth another look. 

There has been some breathless news coverage recently of a supposed UN Plot to Control the Internet. This is false. Let me explain where this idea comes from and why it is wrong.

There is a UN agency called the International Telecommunications Union, the ITU. This body actually predates the UN by about 80 years, and was created to support international cooperation on telegraph lines. These days, it serves as a platform for international cooperation on all forms of telecommunications.  In 1988, the ITU member countries created something called the International Telecoms Regulations. This laid out a rules of the road for things like the interoperability of phone lines and how to calculate charges for international calls so the caller is not charged twice. At the time, phone lines in many parts of the world were owned by governments, and this treaty helped set the rules of the road for the private sectors’ use of “nationalized” lines.

The ITR, as it is known, is a fairly technical treaty and some of the provisions have been rendered obsolete. They are in need of updating for the Internet and mobile phone age. That will happen in December, at a conference in Dubai convened by the ITU in which member states, industry representatives and civil society groups will craft a new set of “regulations.”

As in all UN treaties, the operating principle is consensus: every country must agree (or at least not object) to proposals for them to pass. Actual voting in these fora is extremely rare. If there is any “controversy” around a something in a treaty, it means that a country may not sign or ratify it. So, consensus tends to rule they day.

So what sort of things will they be discussing at the December conference? Like the 1988 conference, the points are mainly technical: how to ensure fair mobile roaming charges; working out a system to prevent a mobile user from being taxed by two different countries when she receives an international call; how to prevent spam; and setting up basic cyber-security provisions.

Because this is a treaty driven process, each member state brings their own agenda to the table. Some member states, for example, want the ITU to have a more broad power over Internet governance and regulation.  The idea is that once the ITU controls the Internet, the Internet could more easily come under the influence of governments (specifically governments that don’t much care for freedom of expression).  This is where you get the canard that the UN is taking over the Internet.

The thing is, those proposals have absolutely no chance of gaining the kind of consensus that is required for an international treaty.  The USA several other countries are pushing back against these efforts, making them a non-starter. Last week, the US Congress even passed a provision lambasting efforts to give the ITU regulatory authority over the Internet. (And, it should be noted that the ITU Secretariat really doesn’t want that kind of authority anyway.)

The overwhelming drive at major conferences like this are finding the points of consensus between countries so that the treaty has a chance of coming into force. If there are huge disagreements, like over the basic nature of internet governance, there will be no treaty. On the other hand, there are strong pressures from governments, businesses and civil society to finds those areas of consensus and build around that for a new set of regulations.

I suspect that as we get closer to this December conference, the controversial proposals will be jettisoned and the final document will be a common sense approach to international mobile data and internet cooperation. Check back in December.

In the meantime, there is no reason to lose sleep because a UN boogeyman will take over your Interwebs.