A worldwide battle for control of the Internet looms, which could soon pit the U.S. against the rest of the world. Starting this week in Geneva, at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, geopolitical rivals such as Russia and China will attempt to extract "unprecedented powers" over the future of the Internet, from domain names to cybersecurity, from data privacy to international mobile roaming rates. Issues that used to be determined solely within the national jurisdiction of the U.S. would be regulated internationally, through a United Nations organization known as the ITU (International Telecommunications Union).
And it’s not just Russia and China – two long-time U.S. rivals in the global arena - that are seeking to diminish U.S. power across the Internet. Joining in the coalition against the U.S. are Brazil, India, South Africa and a majority of the ITU's 193 members. They claim that the U.S. has simply aggregated too much power over the function and regulation of the Internet, through entities such as ICANN. Clearly, there are geopolitical overtones when it comes to controlling the structure and function of the Internet, now that people see the importance of the Internet for everything from commerce to communication to national security.
The Internet is part and parcel of international diplomacy, from here on out. A failure to recognize that fact is a failure to recognize the impact of soft power on a global level.
There are parallels to the modern international financial system, which changed dramatically at Bretton Woods, when international powers passed the financial baton to the U.S. It seems hard to remember a time in history when the U.S. dollar wasn't the international reserve currency or when the U.S. didn't have an overwhelming say in how the financial system develops. Just as the U.S. eventually displaced Europe as the center of a global financial system, nations such as China and Russia are seeking to displace the U.S. as the center of the global Internet. In the process, de facto U.S. control over the Internet would crumble in the face of international pressure. The Internet would take its direction from China and Russia, especially now that China has reached parity with the U.S. in terms of total Internet users. (In all fairness, the ITU has said that running the Internet has never been its goal.)
According to FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, however, there are significant follow-on consequences for the U.S. if the UN begins to run the Internet. In one scenario, "revenue-hungry national governments could begin charge according to traffic.” Sound familiar? That’s essentially Net Neutrality in international disguise, where companies would have to pay more for high-bandwidth traffic like video. Imagine national governments being able to extract fees from Internet companies for something as simple (and free) as a Skype call with a colleague abroad.
What is clear, of course, is that more of the regulatory battles over the Internet from piracy to data privacy, are being fought at an international level in which U.S. voters largely have little or no say. Again, the closest analogy might just be the modern financial system, which relies on a patchwork quilt of national regulators during the good times, and the good will of international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank during the bad times. Using this analogy, the IMF would be running the system on a full-time basis.
Would a UN-run Internet necessarily look that much different from a U.S.-run Internet? The answer, unequivocally, is yes. A top-down, regulated industry always looks different from an industry that has been organized and self-regulated from the bottoms-up. Unfortunately, as FCC Commissioner McDowell points out, “the U.S. is unprepared for a fight over whether the Internet.” As earlier battles over legislation such as SOPA and ACTA have taught us, though, control over how the Internet functions means control over our collective future.
image: UN Building in NYC / Shutterstock