Nobody was really surprised when the United States walked away from a UN treaty to regulate the Internet last week. When it came time to put the treaty up to a vote on Friday, the U.S. had pulled together a bloc of over 20 other nations, including the United Kingdom and the European Union, to join it in opposing the document. In total, 55 out of 144 countries didn't sign the treaty, leaving it short of the consensus it would need to be effective. Not everyone believed that the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) would matter. In fact, some called it "pointless." But after the vote, the U.S. made its point to loud and clear: The UN has no business messing with our Internet.
When I say "our Internet," I mean that in the Federalist sense. Much like the foundation for the United States government was laid by the foundation of the Constitutional Convention, poured back in 1787, the Internet has some founding fathers of its own. Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee might be the Internet's John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson, respectively. Cerf was working at DARPA when TCP/IP technology was still an experiment, and he played a major role into making the Internet we know and use today. Berners-Lee, a Brit, invented the World Wide Web and hypertext as we know it while working at CERN.
Cerf and Berners-Lee and their colleagues in the U.S. and Europe don't own the Internet, per se. These guys and a handful of others designed the Internet and the web to be open and free for everyone. They do maintain some ownership over the founding principles of the Internet, though. In the decades after Cerf and Berners-Lee made their mark, the vast majority of activity on the Internet happens on a handful of sites. Eight of the top ten most trafficked sites are American. So based on the history of the technology and the state of commerce, it's easy to see how America gets a little bit protective when the rest of the world comes to tinker with its Internet.
Delegates at last week's ITU meeting (via Flickr)
This is a sore spot for the rest of the world. Since 1988, when the last multilateral communications treaty was signed, Western powers, especially America, have more or less controlled the web. At least, they did until recently. Those who would like to see that dynamic shift (what one draft proposal called "equal rights to manage the internet") include developing countries that are trying to spread access to more citizens — Bangladesh, Mexico, Indonesia, Ukraine — and, ironically, despotic governments — Iran, Russia, China, Sudan — that would like to maintain the ability to keep its citizens in the dark.
The U.S. doesn't like other countries deciding the future of the 'net, and not just because we like freedom and free speech, but because we like being in charge. Officially, nobody is really in charge of the Internet; no one entity can shut it down. Still, aside from being home to the world's biggest Internet companies and the vast majority of the wealth created by online commerce, the U.S. does maintain some control over the infrastructure through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Born just 15 years ago--around the time of the first ITU treaty--when Ira Magaziner, a member of the Clinton administration, drafted a paper on how the Internet would be governed, this little-known but powerful California-based non-profit is in charge of assigning everything from domain names to IP addresses. If you want to make a big change on the Internet, you have to go through ICANN.
Today, for instance, ICANN is shaking up the web with a plan that's been a decade in the making: adding thousands of new top level domains beyond the original ones (.xxx, .google, .museum, and so on now join domains like .com, .edu, .gov), driving a new Internet land grab. This led to widespread criticism, including from the U.S. government, which has warned ICANN about the group's apparent conflicts of interest. Still, when the UN tried to take control over some of ICANN's jurisdiction earlier this year, the U.S. made sure that it didn't happen.
With that in mind, it's pretty understandable, then, that some countries want more of a say. It's as if they're trying to get a fair chance in a soccer game, when the U.S. both owns the stadium, pays the referees' paychecks and also wrote the rulebook. This is also precisely why organizations like the UN exist. Sure, the U.S. is a big stakeholder on the web with one of the biggest Internet-connected populations in the world. But Asia still makes up over half of the world's population of Internet users, and they've never really gotten a say in how it's run. Many countries argue that the shifted balance of interest in the Internet is a strong argument for UN intervention. Another reason: some countries see incidents like the Stuxnet virus, thought to have been developed at least partially in the U.S., as evidence of the risks that come with uniltateral Internet oversight in the age of cyberwar.
Meanwhile, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which organized WCIT-12, has been trying hard not to take sides. After the world's nations failed to ratify the treaty, ITU secretary general Hamadoun Toure said that the treaty would bring the signatories "increased transparency in international mobile roaming charges and competition," even if there's still no way to enforce the treaty. Even U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer, the head of the U.S. delegation, noted that countries can already enact Internet regulations within their own borders, and they do. “If someone wants to, that’s their prerogative, but we’re hoping that’s not an easy task,” he said on a conference call. "History will show that the conference has achieved something extremely important," continued Toure, ever the optimist. "It has succeeded in bringing unprecedented public attention to the different and important perspectives that govern global communications."
I hate to sound cyncial, but it's difficult not to read the protest by the United States earlier this week (see also its repeated refusal to join an international treaty at U.N. climate talks) as a symbol of America's lasting dominance over the Internet conversation. As he led the U.S. delegation out of the meeting, Terry Kramer said that it was "with a heavy heart" that he could not sign the treaty "in its current form," certainly knowing full and well that his country's refusal would bring another couple dozen countries along with it. (Congressmen and the New York Times, among many, lauded the U.S.'s refusal as a victory for the open web.)
"It is clear that the world community is a crossroads in its view of the Internet and its relationship to society in the coming century," Kramer added as the U.S. walked away. Larry Downes, an Internet industry analyst, summarized the summit to The Hill: "What has been an Internet Cold War between countries who recognize the value of the Internet and those who fear it has now turned hot."
The fact of the matter is, it was pretty easy for the U.S. and friends to dodge greater regulation over the Internet this time around, but the battle is far from over. Lauren Weinstein at Wired compared the issue of Internet regulation to a "sleeping Godzilla," a monster that will retreat for now, only to come back twice as powerful at some unknown point in the future. The UN won't be regulating the Internet or global telecommunications any time soon. Meanwhile, the countries who haven't held the reins will continue to want more of a say over the future of the Internet. For now, as usual, they'll have to go through the U.S.
Top image via Flickr; graph by the Economist.