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The Open Internet Is Threatened by UN

Representatives of more than 190 governments have convened a profoundly important closed-door meeting this week in Dubai to hammer out how the Internet should be run and who should pay for its operation.

The International Telecommunication Union, a low-profile United Nations agency that’s sponsoring the meeting, sets out the technical standards for the world’s communication technologies. The last time the group met was in 1988, when the information superhighway was geek talk and the World Wide Web didn’t exist. The Internet’s subsequent explosive growth occurred not so much because of the ITU but despite it.

Private and state-owned telecommunications companies spent billions of dollars in response to user demand, and most governments took a hands-off approach. In less than two decades, two billion people were able to go online.

Letting an obscure “one vote per country” UN technical agency decide who does what next in the Internet’s development is the antithesis of what the Internet has achieved. Much of the documentation to date is secret, and it’s hard to figure out the agendas of many players. The blogosphere is buzzing about proposals by repressive governments and money-grabbing telecommunications companies. One paper by Russia would see the ITU take over the Internet from the global ecosystem of volunteer organizations that currently govern it. Another by European telecommunications companies would let operators charge content providers such as YouTube that use a lot of bandwidth.

Defenders of an open Internet are concerned about a dark agenda at the Dubai meeting. “Many states and corporations would like to get a stranglehold on the Internet,” says Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s inventor. “The multi-stakeholder system that governs the Internet works well and we need to preserve its openness.”

It’s farcical that little effort was taken by the ITU to include the people who actually use and run it in deciding how tomorrow’s Internet will function. Of all organizations, the ITU should be able to see that the Internet has made the ITU obsolete. But it’s not alone. Ironically, it’s only one of many organizations the Internet itself is rapidly rendering anachronistic.

Throughout the 20th century, nation-states co-operated to build global institutions to address global problems. This led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and, ultimately, to the UN (1945), the G8 (1975) and the World Trade Organization (1995). But, increasingly, they seem unable to solve global problems. Are climate change, poverty and war too hard to solve, or does the world need a new approach to global co-operation and governance?

These failures are often caused by national self-interests taking priority when the challenges demand solutions that transcend traditional nation-state boundaries. These groups make little room for the inclusion of authentic citizen voices, despite the fact that self-organized civic networks are congealing around every major international issue.

The successful governance of the Internet to date suggests a completely different form of global co-operation to supplement or even succeed those based on the nation-state, just as the nation-state itself was built on the foundations of earlier forms of government.

The Internet radically drops collaboration costs on a global basis, enabling new models of problem-solving. It’s increasingly clear that governance will be co-owned by a variety of stakeholders, including NGOs, transnational corporations, emerging countries and traditional government entities. Even individuals have an unprecedented ability to participate in global activities. As former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan once put it, “We live in a world where human problems do not come permanently attached to national passports.” Global governance isn’t owned by any one governing body. It’s a challenge owned by all of us.

Advocacy networks such as the Alliance for Climate Protection are working to educate and mobilize millions, changing the policy of governments and global institutions. Some networks act as platforms for those who seek change. A great example is Ushahidi, the website established to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout of 2008 that evolved into a global network to enable people to share information and organize for change. Watchdog networks such as Human Rights Watch scrutinize the behaviour of governments. Global knowledge networks such as Wikipedia exist to produce and distribute knowledge to the world. Operational networks such as CrisisCommons intervene in crises such as Hurricane Sandy.

More elaborate multi-issue networks such as the World Economic Forum or the Clinton Global Initiative address a variety of issues but, unlike formal state-based institutions, are self-organizing and act as meta-networks trying to help other networks succeed.

The battle in Dubai is really an epochal showdown between the old and new models of co-operating and governing ourselves on this ever-shrinking planet. If the ITU wants to be helpful, it should back off and simply reaffirm the principles of competition, openness, neutrality and the independent regulation of national telecommunications that made the Web possible.

The governance of the Internet ain’t broken, so don’t fix it.