If you’ve noticed headlines like “Why is the UN Trying to Take over the Internet?” lately, it’s because Internet governance has entered mainstream discussion in the run up to the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) conference in Dubai this December. Attendees are set to review and revise the International Telecommunications Regulations, a binding global treaty created in 1988 that outlines the principles governing the way international voice, data, and video traffic is handled. Today, these regulations extend to the Internet, but also digital broadcasting, mobile technologies, and 3D TV.

The ITU, an arm of the UN founded in 1865, is one of the oldest functioning intergovernmental organizations in the world, and it wants to remain relevant. Today, it allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits. It also develops technical standards to promote interconnectivity and technical interoperability, and to improve telecommunications access for all. The list of invitees is exclusive to the 193 (ITU) member country states, some UN bodies, regional telecommunication organizations, and related IGOs such as those operating satellite systems. Other Internet stakeholders—including civil society, technical representatives, and academics are notably absent. Technology has ushered in an era of transparency and openness, but ITU is still very closed, and it is extending this lack of transparency to important discussions on revamping processes and procedures for Internet governance.

In light of the lack of disclosure, two researchers from George Mason University created WCITLeaks, a service that gives those with access to preparatory reports the opportunity to anonymously make them available online. Some proposed modifications to the regulations and decision-making processes are already available on the site. In response, the ITU opened public consultation on a draft conference input document, and are asking for views and opinions on the document or on conference issues.
At the conference, a treaty that defines general principles for the provision and operation of international telecommunications networks around the world will be drafted. According to the ITU, “Whatever one single country does not accept will not pass.” But no one stakeholder should decide the future of the Internet, and there are governments that want to retain control over the flow of information in their countries and that are trying to wield influence in their favor.

What changes might the treaty bring about?

  1. Proposals have been made to hand over much more control to governments. This would make it easier for them to patrol Internet use, and to legitimatize more censorship and resulting prosecution.
  2. The ITU would also start regulating Internet content and influence decisions over next-generation networks, data privacy, cybersecurity, international mobile roaming, equipment specifications and wireless communication.
  3. Some countries are lobbying to have Internet traffic measured along national borders so that telecommunication companies can charge content providers based on where they are located (note: most traffic originates in the US). This may affect what we pay for the Internet and therefore what content we will access.
  4. It is suggested that ITU replace the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), by assuming their responsibility for monitoring and implementing Internet functions, including addressing, naming, security, and standards.

Compare these changes with some of the multi-stakeholder, bottom-up processes that have guided Internet governance to date. Current organizations and initiatives include:

  1. ICANN: A private sector, nonprofit, it coordinates the Internet’s unique identifiers across the world. (Internet Protocol addresses and country codes, for example). Almost anyone can join most of ICANN’s Volunteer Working Groups.
  2. The Internet Engineering Task Force: Facilitated by the Internet Society, a nonprofit, this open international community of network operators, vendors, designers, and researchers help with the smooth operation of internet architecture.
  3. World Wide Web Consortium: Partially led by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, stakeholders work together to develop Web standards.
  4. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF): An open forum with no members established by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), it is the leading global multi-stakeholder forum on public policy issues related to Internet governance. (Read about my experience at the last IGF.)
  5. The Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group discusses technical issues about the Internet so that network interaction and management processes are transparent and clear.    

The United States plays a big role in many of these initiatives. This is understandably causing controversy as the Internet grows in scope, and in economic, political, and social importance worldwide. For instance, ICANN operates under a contract awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the US government has in the past claimed the right to seize any .com, .net, and .org domain name. However, while none of these initiatives are perfect (they are not known to most Internet users), and there is still need for more meaningful and diverse representation (money, technical expertise, and limited English inhibit many from participating), the organizations and initiatives listed above still provide avenues for equal participation from individuals and institutions, regardless of country or background. They acknowledge that a lack of openness will lead to fragmentation of the Internet, where interoperability is vital.

All governments, including western democracies, want to assert their power as the Internet gives more influence to the individual, the corporation, the hacker. On the other hand, if the long-sought-after changes that governments such as Russia, Iran, and China propose are adopted, Internet governance will transform into a top-down, centralized, bureaucratic process. It will affect competition, freedom of speech, and access to information, and will cast a shadow on transparency.

No government or IGO can make necessary decisions quick enough to respond to the demands of the Internet. The involvement of civil society and civil society organizations has proven extremely valuable for democratic inclusion in the governance process. We need not look further than the stoppage of SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA to see the power that openness gives to the many rather than the few. The Pirate Party works to reform copyright law, abolish the patent system, and protect citizen privacy. The Swedish party was able to gain two seats in the European parliament; the German branch recently won four seats in the state of Saarland in southwest Germany and last year won 15 seats in Berlin's state parliament. There are currently parties in more than 50 countries, and its relative success points to the way that the Internet is revolutionising politics. Multi-stakeholder collaboration has been important for the Internet’s success thus far. The genie is out of the bottle. The Internet is open. Let’s hope that the genie is not sucked back in.