In 1971, when China was first admitted to the United Nations, William Rusher quipped that it was "a case of loosing a China in the bullshop.” Such is the first thought that comes to mind in reflection on the latest bit of mischief to issue from the UN, in this case courtesy of that body’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The second thought is of the power of precedents in law and policymaking. Policywise, precedents can be likened to the engine of a train, the caboose of which is incremental or galloping movement in the same direction.
So the take-away from the vote last week in Dubai by 89 countries, including such freedom-loving regimes as those of China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela (you know, the usuals), is that it’s just a matter of time before many of those same countries claim the right, under the UN charter, to control the Internet through such things as filtering, identifying users, and surveillance.
Defenders of last week’s vote, like the head of the ITU, disingenuously claim that “The conference was not about Internet control or Internet governance…. And indeed there are no treaty provisions on the Internet.” The key word here is “treaty,” since tucked away in the appendices, as reported by Ars Technica, is this sentence:
[WCIT-12 resolves to invite member states] to elaborate on their respective positions on international Internet-related technical, development and public-policy issues within the mandate of ITU at various ITU forums including, inter alia, the World Telecommunications/ICT Policy Forum, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development and ITU study groups.
So for the first time, the precedent has been established that the UN is an appropriate body for the deliberation of policy issues affecting the Internet. Never mind that this resolution is not binding on those countries, like the United States, which voted against the International Telecommunications Regulations. The point survives: From this time forward the UN’s ITU will provide cover for those nations that wish to wall their citizens off from the open Internet.
Nor is this the only dangerous precedent to be noted in the context of the WCIT. As warned two years ago by Ambassador Philip Verveer, the adoption by this country of so-called “net neutrality” regulations itself provides an opportunity for international mischief making.
As Robert McDowell, than whom no other FCC commissioner in memory has been right more often, put it in congressional testimony earlier this month:
Should the FCC’s regulation of Internet network management be overturned by the court, in lieu of resorting to the destructive option of classifying, for the first time, broadband Internet access services as common carriage under Title II, the FCC should revive a concept I proposed nearly five years ago – that is to use the tried and true multi-stakeholder model for resolution of allegations of anti-competitive conduct by Internet service providers….
If we are going to preach the virtues of the multi-stakeholder model at the pending World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, we should practice what we preach. Not only would the U.S. then harmonize its foreign policy with its domestic policy, but such a course correction would yield better results for consumers as well.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.