Plans Could Turn the Internet, and Smart Grid, Over to the UN

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., 3 June 2012 — An international effort is underway to give control and governance of the Internet to a United Nations agency, with implications for ways that U.S. utilities might implement smart grid technologies. Led by Russia and China, the plan to turn the Internet over to the International Telecommunications Union is proceeding largely out of public view; the ITU process does not allow any form of public access even to the plans and proposals these nations are floating prior to a coming meeting in Dubai in December to discuss the issue.

The Dubai meeting of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, known to the cognoscenti as “wicket”) will bring the proposals by Russia and China, with others from India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other governments, to the surface. According to Richard Beaird of the U.S. State Department, the details of the plans of the countries who want to centralize and impose top-down control will emerge in August, as they are made public prior to the Dubai meeting.

Beaird told a meeting organized by the Free State Foundation in Washington at the end of May that, as best he can determine, none of the proposals actually call for the 193-member ITU to exercise day-to-day management of the Internet. But that fear, including the specter of U.N. bureaucrats making day-to-day engineering decisions, is in the minds of many of the U.S. non-governmental observers of the unfolding events.

Google’s Vinton Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet (working at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s he invented the “Internet protocol,” the fundamental “IP” technology at the base of the Internet), wrote recently, “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.” Some countries want to turn the Internet from a neutral common carrier into a tool of political control by often odious and undemocratic regimes. The actions of the ITU would not be subject to public review or oversight. Cerf noted that Russia has publicly called for “international norms and rules standardizing the behavior of countries concerned information and cyberspace.” He said he fears that “decisions taken in Dubai in December have the potential to put government handcuffs on the Net.”

Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, speaking at the Free State Foundation meeting, warned of a new telecommunications regime that could result in “politically paralyzing business and engineering decisions” in running the Internet. He called for protection of the “current multi-stakeholder internet governance model,” including the status of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Some proposals reportedly would abolish in favor of the United Nations agency. Beaird of the State Department said the proposals would upset the current regime of telecommunications regulation governed by non-treaty agreements between and among sovereign states, surrendering some sovereignty to the U.N.

So far, the fear of a centralization of Internet governance unites the left and the right and government and the private sector in the U.S., as the speakers at the May Free State Foundation demonstrated. The foundation is a conservative group focused on the state of Maryland. In addition to McDowell and Beaird, speakers included Jacquelynn Ruff of telecommunications giant Verizon, Google lawyer Richard Whitt, and Gigi Sohn, founder of Public Knowledge, a liberal group supporting open access to the Internet (and formerly with the Media Access Project). A C-SPAN video of the conference is available at