While the Internet has faced various threats in its young life, countries that appreciate the economic and societal benefits are waking up to the very real threat of international governmental control. There is growing concern about a push from countries like Russia and China to give regulatory control over the Internet to a UN agency during a vote scheduled for later this year.
The House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing May 31 on this threat to our economy and free speech. This was also a key discussion among tech and startup companies at the Tech Policy Summit in Napa last week.
My fellow panelists, Robert Pepper of Cisco and Sally Shipman Wentworth of the Internet Society and I told those gathered that this threat has been brewing for the past decade and the concern is it just takes a majority vote at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai for the UN agency known as the International Telecommunications Union to gain more control over the Internet. The ITU was set up in the 19th century to regulate telegraph communications.
The climate after the Arab Spring makes for good grounds to recruit votes from the 193 member countries, as it's natural for governments to be concerned about the Internet as a tool for activism and political communications.
Internet-restricting countries are telling the other countries with a vote in the ITU that if they support this move to give governments more control over the Internet, they can use this power to curb everything from blasphemy to spam to cybercrime.
Even among countries that value the Internet as a means of free speech and economic empowerment, it can be hard to resist the temptation to regulate the Internet for the social cause of the day. The Internet can face a death by 1000 cuts from good intentions -- as much as from the Chinese model for Internet restrictions.
What concerns the tech sector with this upcoming vote for more international regulation of the Internet is that governments around the world often have either a careless disregard or a willful disregard for the consequences to Internet freedom and commerce from more government regulation.
A recent example of this drew headlines when Internet users balked at Congressional plans to alter how the Internet works to provide additional means of foreign copyright enforcement online.
If the United States is willing to sacrifice Internet freedom to boost profits for one sector of the economy as we saw with the SOPA/PIPA copyright enforcement proposals, then other countries will feel justified to place restrictions on the Internet to protect their country's parochial economic values, political, religious or cultural views.
Fortunately with Internet users waking up and protesting the dramatic changes to how the Internet would have operated after SOPA/PIPA, the U.S. is in a better position to reach out to these other countries and the private sector to explain what's at stake with this upcoming WCIT debate in Dubai.
If the U.S. had instead taken this opportunity to regulate the Internet for cynical, proprietary reasons, like copyright, it would have harmed its credibility to advocate for Internet freedom.
But even so, this upcoming international meeting is still a real danger because many countries don't understand what's at stake, and as Pepper pointed out during our panel discussion, there is a lot of misinformation.
Currently everyone from Internet users to NGOs to companies and countries have a voice in Internet governance. So far this system has supported a fairly open culture on the Internet with minimum restrictions on what people can buy, say or find online.
We are glad for this recent opportunity to discuss the danger with tech companies and startups and hope U.S. diplomats will work with other countries and the international private sector to discourage ITU regulation of the Internet. The reason to avoid this outcome is not a U.S.-centric reason, but an international one -- Balkanizing the Internet would hurt economic growth and innovation in nations around the world.