Few technologies have been as revolutionary and valuable as the Internet. So it is no surprise that a coalition of China, Iran, Cuba, Russia and others, backed by supportive U.N. bureaucrats, just won't give up targeting it for a hostile takeover. Their play is to try to upend its governance model that has been so fantastically successful.
To the degree that the Internet has been governed, it has been through a bottom-up, private-sector-driven approach referred to as a "multistakeholder" model. Engineers, academics and user groups seek consensus. The amazing success of the Internet is testament to their success. Of course, governments want their hands on the tiller.
Seven years ago, in these pages, I wrote an op-ed, "Internet survives a hijack attempt." At the time, a U.N.-backed conference held in Tunisia saw these forces attempt to gain control of the Internet, ostensibly in the cause of eliminating the "digital divide." We won, but I warned that they'll be back. And they are.
In December, the U.N. will hold a World Conference on International Telecommunications, involving 193 countries. Alarmingly, though predictably, documents show that a proposal by China would grant countries authority over "the information and communication infrastructure within their state." This would balkanize and cripple the Internet. Other proposals would give the U.N. power to regulate online content. Of course, there are taxing-power proposals, too.
According to the Boston Consulting Group, the Internet economy is estimated to be $2.3 trillion among the G-20 nations, and expected to double by 2016. It accounted for $684 billion, nearly 5 percent, of U.S. economic activity in 2010. This growing pot is too tempting to global-governance types.
More than wealth is on the line, though. Authoritarian regimes rightly see the Internet as a mortal threat, a means for people to organize against them. It facilitated the Arab Spring. On YouTube, the atrocities of the Syrian regime are there for all to see. The Chinese government is constantly battling Internet service providers to censure content threatening to its power.
So the stakes could not be higher. Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell recently summed it up well, telling Congress that this battle "will determine the fate of the Net, affect global economic growth and determine whether political liberty can proliferate." Now that's a wake-up call.
Fortunately, this obscure U.N. conference is gaining attention. Pending before the House is a resolution I co-sponsored that expresses support for keeping the Internet free from international regulation and continuing the current model of Internet governance.
This would not be needed, though, if members of Congress felt the Obama administration was doing enough to stop this Internet power grab. The U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has been managing the technical aspects of the Internet, honoring the existing model of its governance. In 2009, the Obama administration decided to withdraw U.S. oversight and protection of this organization, opening the door to increased calls to give the U.N. more Internet regulatory authority.
The International Telecommunications Union, the U.N. agency where this will be decided, operates by majority vote. Unlike the U.N. Security Council, there is no U.S. veto. It is absurd that the U.S. would be in a position to need to outvote Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and others on such a critical issue. But we must. The administration needs to start lining up votes against Internet-crippling proposals. We'll see.
Anytime U.N. bureaucrats conspire with enemies of freedom, watch out, especially when the target is the marvel that is the Internet.