The Internet stands at a crossroads. Built from the bottom up, powered by the people, it has become a powerful economic engine and a positive social force. But its success has generated a worrying backlash. Around the world, repressive regimes are putting in place or proposing measures that restrict free expression and affect fundamental rights. The number of governments that censor Internet content has grown to 40 today from about four in 2002. And this number is still growing, threatening to take away the Internet as you and I have known it.
…The benefits of the open and accessible Internet are nearly incalculable and their loss would wreak significant social and economic damage. Against this background, a new front in the battle for the Internet is opening at the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations organization that counts 193 countries as its members.
At present, the I.T.U. focuses on telecommunication networks and on radio frequency allocations rather than the Internet per se. Some members are aiming to expand the agency’s treaty scope to include Internet regulation. Each of the 193 members gets a vote, no matter its record on fundamental rights — and a simple majority suffices to effect change. Negotiations are held largely among governments, with very limited access for civil society or other observers.
…The Net prospered precisely because governments — for the most part — allowed the Internet to grow organically, with civil society, academia, private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development, operation and governance. In contrast, the I.T.U. creates significant barriers to civil society participation. A specialized agency of the United Nations, it grew out of the International Telegraph Union, which was established in 1865.
… Last June, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated the goal of Russia and its allies as “establishing international control over the Internet” through the I.T.U. And in September 2011, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan submitted a proposal for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” to the U.N. General Assembly, with the goal of establishing government-led “international norms and rules standardizing the behavior of countries concerning information and cyberspace.” Word of a few other proposals from inside the I.T.U. have surfaced.
Several authoritarian regimes reportedly would ban anonymity from the Web, which would make it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have suggested moving the privately run system that manages domain names and Internet addresses to the United Nations. Such proposals raise the prospect of policies that enable government controls but greatly diminish the “permissionless innovation” that underlies extraordinary Internet-based economic growth to say nothing of trampling human rights. Some countries have expressed sympathy for these proposals. They are concerned about the outsized role they perceive that the United States plays in the direction and development of Internet policy. Some believe the status quo favors the interests of large, global Internet companies.
...we need to prevent a fundamental shift in how the Internet is governed. I encourage you to take action now: Insist that the debate about Internet governance be transparent and open to all stakeholders.