An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Robert McDowell, a commissioner of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, warns that a FCC proposal to regulate broadband Internet access could lead to international regulation of the Internet by the International Telecommunications Union. The ITU, a largely autonomous organization that actually predates the United Nations, is the leading U.N. agency for information and communication technology issues.
As McDowell observes, many U.N. member states are opposed to an unregulated Internet and have proposed granting the U.N. oversight of the medium. This possibility threatens the freedom and vitality that has been a large part of the success of the Internet:
Like free trade, free-flowing information promotes freedom itself. Conversely, countries that regulate the Internet more heavily tend to be less free.
State interference with the Web is spreading. From Iran to North Korea, Syria to Thailand, and Afghanistan to Venezuela, nearly all crackdowns are being carried out in the name of local versions of the “public interest.” For instance, the Chinese government released a white paper on its Internet policy in June that included a chapter titled “Guaranteeing Citizens’ Freedom of Speech on the Internet.” Despite its promising title, the section states that “no organization or individual may produce, duplicate, announce or disseminate information” on the Internet that risks “subverting state power,” “damaging state honor or interest,” or “spreading rumors.” Government regulation of the Internet can often become politically motivated.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. has been a lonely voice fending off efforts by governments to tax, censor and otherwise regulate the Internet over the past decade. The U.S. has been able to fend off some of these efforts at meetings like the World Summit on the Information Society simply by opposing them. In this way, the U.N. tradition of working through consensus at international conferences has assisted U.S. efforts to keep the Internet free of undue restrictions. But, as noted by McDowell, the ITU is a different beast. U.S. objections could and, likely, would be overridden by vote in the international organization at the behest of countries bent on controlling the Internet to address their concerns.
In general, the Obama administration has been less protective of the freedom of the Internet than the Bush Administration. This concerning trend is exacerbated by the possibility of ITU oversight of the Internet.
Keeping the Internet free of U.N. oversight is paramount to its continued growth as a catalyst for economic growth and free exchange of ideas. By failing to push back on these initiatives, the U.S. has made freedom on the Internet less sure and increased its vulnerability to political pressure, censorship, and strangling regulation and taxation.