If some countries have their way, the Internet could soon come under new regulations and oversight by an international treaty. A UN summit being held in December in Dubai will meet to discuss changes to a treaty that was signed in 1988. This treaty, the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty, has made it possible for the Internet to flourish basically untouched by governments and international regulatory bodies. Now, countries like Russia and China are trying to amend the treaty to include language that would allow signers of the treaty to restrict Internet, according to a UN document:
“in cases where international telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature.”
The worry by many observers is that this is an attempt by some states to be able to offer a legal argument for the regulation and censorship of the Internet. Although many countries (like China) already censor the Internet, amendments to the treaty could mean a further deterioration of freedoms; and some are even worried that this foray by the UN into Internet regulations could be a foot in the door for a UN takeover, although scholars such as Jerry Brito at the Mercatus Center don’t think that’s likely.
Congress is concerned enough that yesterday they passed a bipartisan resolution to preserve the independence of the Internet, something that the changes to the treaty would be sure to change. The US delegation to the Dubai conference has already committed to blocking any changes to the treaty. That may not be enough, however, as under the rules of the International Telecommunication Union (the UN board which administers the treaty), countries don’t have a veto—resolutions and regulations are come to by consensus.
Robert McDowell, a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, has been sounding the alarm on the potential ramifications of these changes. In a column a few months back in the Wall Street Journal, McDowell warns that the new changes could subject data privacy to international control, impose rates and conditions on traffic-swapping agreements, take control from many of the current Internet entities such as ICANN, or allow phone companies to charge fees for International traffic. The whole column is worth a serious read to see the potential ramifications of what the changes to the treaty might mean for Internet freedom around the world.
The Internet is an engine for economic growth and freedom. As McDowell notes in the Wall Street Journal piece mentioned above, for every job that the Internet disrupts, 2.6 jobs are created because of it. Giving states more legal authority to oppress their people’s economic freedoms and personal liberties is a recipe for disaster.
Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute