United Nations' ITU Stirs Up Fears of Global Internet Regulation

By: Qichen Zhang on 9 March 2012

Another international attempt at reigning in copyright infringement could turn into a scary aftermath of SOPA and PIPA, critics say. The United Nations recently proposed an increase in Internet regulation powers for the International Telecommunications Union, a move that Eric Schmidt of Google called "a disaster." This renegotiation of the 1988 ITR treaty, supported by a number of countries including Brazil, Russia, India, and China, creates new international legal rules that would allow countries in the union to censor content and monitor users' online activities. They also asked for a "cyber arms control treaty."

Currently, the ITU encompasses over 190 member states. Supporters of the proposal and their allies seek to extend the jurisdiction of the ITU. If passed, the proposal would give considerably more power to the international organization to patrol activity online, including:

  • Allowing foreign phone companies to charge fees for "international" Internet traffic, perhaps even on a "per-click" basis for certain Web destinations, with the goal of generating revenue for state-owned phone companies and government treasuries
  • Imposing economic regulations such as mandates for rates, terms and conditions for currently unregulated traffic-swapping agreements known as "peering"
  • Regulating international mobile roaming rates and practices

Supporters of an open Internet are harshly critical of the proposal. Robert McDowell, an FCC commissioner, commented that countries like Brazil and China are using this chance to conflate cybersecurity with the United Nations, to impose censorship on a global scale, and to make this type of patrolling internationally legitimate. In an interview, Schmidt warned, "Be very, very careful about moves which seem logical, but have the effect of balkanising the Internet." Vint Cerf, Google's "Chief Evangelist" and renowned computer scientist, said, "We don't believe governments should be allowed to grant themselves a monopoly on Internet governance." Edward Black on HuffPo implored people to fight back: "Those who value Internet freedom around the world need to spread the word and encourage their country to reject upcoming pressure to alter international regulations to control the Internet and its users."