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Ethiopia Shows That Congress Is Right to Be Worried About UN Control of the Internet

Steve DelBianco

Today a key committee in the US Congress approved a resolution opposing United Nations "control over the Internet." While some in the Internet community have dismissed the bipartisan effort as mere political grandstanding, recent actions by some UN Member States show that lawmakers have good reason to be worried.

Last month, UN voting member Ethiopia made it a crime — punishable by 15 years in prison — to make calls over the Internet. The Ethiopian government cited national security concerns, but also made it clear that it wants to protect the revenues of the state-owned telecom monopoly. (those guys really hate it when people use free Internet calling services like Skype and Google Talk)

The news out of Ethiopia is just the latest indication that many UN members don't think too highly of the free and open Internet, or of its multi-stakeholder governance model. Aside from the Ethiopian law, we've heard a drumbeat of news about governments seeking to regulate and tax the Internet through the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai.

So while some Internet insiders snicker at Congress and its nonbinding resolution, I give props to those lawmakers for having the courage and savvy to focus on this issue.

Over and over again in recent months, United Nations supporters — including ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure — have publicly scoffed at the notion that the WCIT and the renegotiation of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) treaty will lead to UN control of the Internet.

But the words and actions of ITU member states, not to mention the text of the proposals they are offering in advance of WCIT, reveal that governments and multi-governmental bodies openly covet a bigger role in Internet governance.

One of the key areas for debate at WCIT will be how developing country telecom monopolies can regain the revenue they lose when their citizens use free internet calling services. With the news out of Ethiopia, we've seen how at least one ITU member proposes to solve that problem.

It's frightening to consider applying wire-line telecom regulations and tariffs to international Internet traffic. Those regulations have the potential to dramatically impact traffic flows, censor content, and raise access costs for precisely the same populations that stand to benefit most from a free and open Internet.

In fact, states like Ethiopia should embrace the broad economic upside of letting their businesses and citizens take advantage of convenient and inexpensive Internet communications. That could mean less revenue for a state-owned telecom monopoly, but to maximize GDP you want to encourage Gross Domestic Product — not Government-Directed Profits.

Now, these tariffs and regulations become even more insidious when you consider the byzantine ITU and UN policymaking process, as I described here.

The name of the game in big multi-governmental bodies is coalition building, or what we used to call "horse trading". In the one nation/one vote world, the only way for powerful countries like China to get anything done is to buy allies by offering to support issues like economic aid and — you guessed it — telecom tariffs.

So picture a world where some portion of Internet oversight resides with the UN, ITU, or some new multinational body. Now imagine how easy it will be for China to scratch Ethiopia's back on something like telecom tariffs, in exchange for a vote favoring Internet censorship. Not only is this possible, it's precisely what countries like China and Russia want to see happen.

Before we embrace the rule of 'one nation/one vote' to govern the Internet, let's understand how many of those governments will vote once the UN makes the rules. And they're not being all that secretive about it — Vladimir Putin wants to vest the UN with "International control of the Internet."

In the International environment, the United States is an easy target and nonbinding Congressional resolutions are causally dismissed. But wherever in the world you live, it's worth hearing Washington's alarm and knowing that the threat is real.

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice. More blog posts from Steve DelBianco can also be read here.

Related topics: Censorship, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation

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Comments

Today Ethiopia, tomorrow the world... Milton Mueller  –  Jun 20, 2012 1:50 PM PDT

Steve, what "threat is real?" Did you notice that Ethiopia took these measures without any change in the ITRs or any authorization or support from an international treaty? Can you tell me how unilateral action by a single state has anything to do with "UN control of the internet?" If your argument is that there are individual governments out there which over-regulate the internet economy and suppress free speech, well, yeah, I'd have to agree. And if you tell me that these same governments would love to regulate the entire internet then yes, I'd also have to agree. But that does not make a UN takeover a credible threat worthy of setting you DC folks abuzz. Your article actually shows that the real threats come from national governments acting on their own, not from a nonexistent conspiracy by all the world's governments to take over the Internet through the UN.

I do not defend or support the UN, I do not advocate a UN role in any internet governance issue. I don't want them in control any more than you do. I also don't want Iran or North Korea to invade the US, or China to revert to Maoism. There are a lot of scary possibilities out there in the world. I see it as a form of "political grandstanding" to tie Ethiopia's action to something unrelated, and it makes me suspicious. These kinds of campaigns against a foreign bogeyman can divert attention from real threats to Internet freedom that we face here at home and around the world. It would be better to talk more directly about the need for free markets in internet services (something you haven't been too supportive of in the ICANN context) and the way economic freedoms are tied to civil liberties. It would make more sense to apply general principles supporting internet freedom to ALL governance venues, including ICANN, the US government, the European Commission, ACTA, TPP, CISPA, Flame, and Stuxnet as well as the ITU and the UN.

This is not about a specific control Phil Howard  –  Jun 20, 2012 8:13 PM PDT

This is not about a specific control Ethiopia is doing in their own country.  Instead, this is illustrative of bad intentions by this government and others like it.  These bad intentions could spread into their proposals and votes in the UN.

Boiling the frog Steve DelBianco  –  Jun 21, 2012 12:20 PM PDT

Thanks for the comment, Milton.  You're right that it doesn't take much to set us "DC folks abuzz".

But Ethiopia is indicative of the many small incremental steps that are leading away from multi-stakeholder model and towards an intergovernmental model of internet governance. 

It's like the metaphor of "boiling the frog":  If you dump a frog in boiling water, he jumps out.  But if you put the frog in lukewarm water and gradually raise the heat, he gets cooked — because the small and slow increases in heat aren't enough to alarm the frog.

I feel like multi-stakeholder supporters and Internet users could be the "frog" here.  And The UN/ITU is boiling the frog, with help from authoritarian governments and state-owned telecom monopolies in developing economies.

It’s bad enough that Ethopia is able to crack down so aggressively on its own citizens' use of the internet. What’s important to me — and what I think should be important to all of us in the ICANN space, regardless of where we stand on other issues — is that Ethopia and like-minded regimes don’t gradually acquire more power to impose those sorts of regulations on the entire world.

P.s. Milton Mueller  –  Jun 20, 2012 2:01 PM PDT

Is Ethiopia a member of the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee? Is Russia?
I know, trick question…
;-)

What's real? Bill Smith  –  Jun 20, 2012 5:14 PM PDT

In partial answer to Martin's question:

Weeks (individually) spent in Geneva discussing proposals that would negatively impact the Internet as we know it. Multiply by the number of delegates to obtain a truly staggering loss of productivity in the name of "light-touch" regulation (with no evidence that it is required).

The belief that regulation is required to ensure that the economic and social benefits of the Internet are realized. (Apparently this hasn't happened yet, or won't happen/continue without regulation via a treaty.)

A strong, perhaps growing, desire to wrest control of Internet Governance from any truly multi-stakeholder organization. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, open, transparent, and equitable may not be principles of alternative governance institutions.

Obfuscated proposals that would jeopardize the free flow of information on the Internet as we know it. Transit of signs, signals, or intelligence through any Member State that finds said signs, signals, or intelligence a threat, could be interrupted (dropped) by said Member State. While this can happen now, inclusion in the ITRs provides legal (treaty-based) protection for such actions.

Some Member States and some ITU management/staff are seeking to formally expand the ITU's regulatory remit to include Information Processing (ICTs). Shades of 1984?

Geneva is real. The ITU Tower is real. Proposals that would undermine or negatively impact the Internet are real. To ignore this reality in favor of one that says free markets alone will solve all problems is risky at best, and a losing proposition at worst.

Better to hedge, and that is why I spend time in Geneva.

That's Milton's question. (it's 2am in Geneva) Bill Smith  –  Jun 20, 2012 5:15 PM PDT

That's Milton's question. (it's 2am in Geneva)

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